Evangelical church with hipster credentials grows in Germantown

by ekramer on December 18, 2007

Last year, the Sojourn Community Church finally found a permanent home in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood after renting spaces in the Highlands for seven years. The new space and the church’s approach to worshiping have propelled its growth from a congregation of a several hundred to about one thousand. WFPL’s Elizabeth Kramer spent some time at the church and found that Sojourn’s take on faith is part of a national phenomenon.

It’s Friday night and at the 930 Art Gallery no steeple or even a prominent cross is in plain sight, although this gallery is part of the Sojourn Community Church. On display are art and photographs about southern Sudan made and collected by a group of members and novice documentary filmmakers who have visited the African country.

The several hundred people here are mostly in their twenties or thirties. Clad in comfortable yet stylish attire, they appear to have hipster credentials. They are part of the city’s creative crowd, replete with several local artists and musicians. Over the past year, they have been drawn to this sprawling former school building where Sojourn has mounted other art exhibitions and staged concerts.

Meanwhile, attendance at Sunday services has grown three fold. Kevin Janes, who books bands that play here, credits his generation’s appreciation of art, which he calls a gift from God. He believes that the kind of art Sojourn showcases is working to change people’s minds about the church.

“It seems like a lot of the biggest response has been people’s preconceived notions of the church have been shaken and they start to see that we’re putting wheels on the message — not just preaching, but putting wheels on it and putting flesh on it. You know?,” Janes says.

The wheels Janes speaks of are sahowcasing art and participating in community service projects in a neighborhood where 30 percent of young children live in poverty. Outside of these activities, Sojourn gives traction to its message by heralding it via three Web sites with blogs and podcasts of sermons and music. Its message also is out on several CDs.

But ultimately, the basic message these wheels carry is the Gospels of the Bible.

The vehicle that Sojourn has built in Louisville is similar to what a new generation of churches throughout the country has created. Many are part of a growing organization called Acts 29, a network with 104 churches in 30 states. Sojourn is a member and so is Seattle’s well-known Mars Hill Church, led by Mark Driscoll. He has written a primer on practicing evangelism while being active and engaged with modern culture. Driscoll also co-founded Acts 29. Its members identify themselves as a new breed of Christian evangelicals who are called upon to establish — or what they call “plant” — new churches.

“Things are really shifting in the North American Church,” says Daniel Montgomery.

He is Sojourn’s senior pastor and a Southern Baptist Seminary graduate. He also serves on the Acts 29 board of directors. Like other Acts 29 members, he resists being affiliated with specific denominations and embraces a doctrine akin to those set by the Southern Baptist Convention. Montgomery and members of Sojourn say their approach to faith was born out of their own experiences growing up in a country where religion has been politicized and where politics has been besieged by religious authorities and organizations that appear to be motivated by gaining and maintaining power rather than devotion to Christ.

“Denominations are primarily based on control and they have little influence,” Montgomery says. “Whereas a lot of these networks that are emerging aren’t based so much on control, but are based on relationships, and they have a lot of influence — where there are natural peer-to-peer relationships, where people are coming together. It’s essentially what denominations started off as.”

That coming together, he says, results in a church devoid of segregation and one that includes people from diverse backgrounds.

Sojourn’s beliefs, of course, come through more clearly during its Sunday services, where Montgomery preaches. On a recent rainy Sunday he gave a sermon about masculinity. He encouraged men to be like the “real Jesus,” one who was a manly man and not a prissy motivational speaker. He bemoaned the feminization of the church and talked about men’s responsibility to lead their wives, their families, their communities and the church.

“You’ve ever been in church, you’ve ever gone to church, and there’s not many women, but there’s a lot of these men who are always smiling and they’re doing great — like something out of “Stepford Wives” or “Twilight Zone” or something you know?” Mongomery asks the congregation. “It’s kind of freaky. So leadership is about defining reality. I just want to call this out. This is what’s happening in the North American Church.”

Montgomery enthralls the listeners and many of them jot notes on a handout. It lists references to the Bible, to articles by Driscoll and to books like “No More Christian Nice Guy.”

These handouts, given out at each service, are provided to help spark discussion at Sojourn’s 42 community groups that meet each week in members’ homes throughout the city. Montgomery calls these groups key components to cultivating those peer-to-peer relationships and growing the church.

“Come in. Hey, Josh. Welcome,” says Kelsey Barnes.

It’s Tuesday night and 10 people gather at the apartment of Jamie and Kelsey Barnes off Hurstbourne Lane. Several have clothing imprinted with drawings of skulls and crossbones. Some have tattoos. A few are students at the Southern Baptist Seminary. They start by discussing events in their lives that week, and Jamie makes an announcement.

“We have the best reason to celebrate this week,” Jamie says. “I don’t know if all of you got my e-mail but Jimmy last week expressed his desire to be identified as a Christian, to claim Christ as his savior.”

They congratulate Jimmy before discussing Montgomery’s sermon.

Although Sojourn professes that everyone is equal in the eyes of God and the church, the women go into a spare bedroom and the men remain in the living room for their discussions. In their divided groups, they consult the Bible and relate it and Montgomery’s sermon to their lives. They end with a prayer as one group and talk about seeing each other the next week.

Montgomery sees these groups as an essential element to this growing church. That growth is something he expects to persevere and ultimately result in changes throughout Louisville. He and other church leaders are resolute when they talk about their ambitions.

“We actually want to see concretely the social, economic fabric, the political fabric of the city change and we believe that’s possible and it’s something we should expect because of the Gospel,” Montgomery says.

Meanwhile, Montgomery and his colleagues have been cultivating and propagating their faith beyond Germantown and Louisville. Sojourn helped establish Louisville’s Crossing Church and is working to establish new churches in Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky.

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