Making a Megachurch
In just eight years, 2|42 Community Church has grown into one of the city's largest congregations.
by Larry T. Eiler
From the December, 2017 issue
In August, 2|42 Community Church's new building was a work in progress. One corner of the former factory off Wagner Rd. had been opened up with a striking slant-roofed atrium. In another corner, a colorful raised facade marked an unfinished community center. In between, high walls framed the main entrance.
Inside the sanctuary, several tables were set up around the room, each filled with shiny baseball-sized rocks. Someone asked if I knew what the rocks were for; I had no idea. I'd only been to the church a few times; this was my first since it moved here from a smaller building on Maple Rd.
My wife, Sandy, was killed in a car accident two years ago. Seeking ways to help our seven children and thirteen grandchildren understand her death, I've visited St. Mary's and St. Francis Catholic parishes, the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor, and congregations in Atlanta, Long Beach, and San Francisco.
My editor suggested I look at 2|42, an evangelical church he'd been following in the Observer's annual City Guides. In its very first year, 2009, the Ann Arbor "campus" reported 200 members. This year, it reported 2,000. The service I attended, one of three each weekend, was standing room only. Its twelve-year-old parent campus, in Brighton, has half a dozen services and draws 4,000. A third campus, in Lansing, launched last year.
Young, informally dressed, and unobtrusively miked, "teaching pastor" Keith Brown spoke casually from the front of a raised platform. A large screen behind him, which earlier showed lyrics for Christian rock songs, displayed the themes from his sermon, "Remembering Stones."
"When was the last time you saw God do a massive miracle in your life?" he asked. "I'm talking about an undeniable miracle that turbo-boosted your life."
He invited everyone to take a stone from the basket as a reminder of God's gifts. A flyer asked us to "Recount the good things God has done for you in life. Write down 1 to
11. Family Wife Children Job Friends. When you are having a tough patch and your spirit and faith are issues, take out the special Rock.
"It's to be the 12th stone. Use it when you want to thank God for something special He has done."
I took one home. In September, I brought it out to remember my mother, who died of an aneurysm at age forty-seven. Like Sandy, she was a loss, and a gift.
"2|42 is for people who are floundering in their religious beliefs," says executive pastor Kevin Davis. "We work hard to make church make sense and teach people how to apply what Jesus taught."
It's part of a populist religious movement afoot in America. "People have an unmistakable desire to worship without the barriers of rules and regulations that many traditional religions and churches have," says lead pastor Dave Dummit. "We have no requirements of dress, manner of prayer, or the other rituals that many churches have." Dummit summarizes 2|42's beliefs in a single sentence: "We believe God is who He says He is and what the Bible contains as it was written."
I call this the "happify movement" because the people I see at services are often joyous. Dummit says 2|42 is aimed at "people who want to emerge from church in a happy and joyful mental state and filled with positive ideas of how to go about their daily jobs and families."
Some fundamentalist Christians dismiss this as "feel-good religion." It's definitely not a place you're likely to hear a sermon like eighteenth-century Puritan Jonathan Edwards' scorcher, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." But aside from the positive tone, Edwards would find little to disagree with in 2|42's doctrine. According to its website, the church believes that the Bible is divinely inspired and entirely accurate; that God "created the entire universe and all its creatures" (i.e., no evolution); that humanity fell from grace through Satan's temptation of Adam and Eve; and redemption comes only through Jesus Christ.
The church's name comes from the Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament. Chapter 2, verses 42-47, tell "the story of the first Church 2,000 years ago," says Dummit. "This dynamic group of Christ followers was a group of people living in community, taking care of one another, and giving generously for their flock. The early church experienced unprecedented growth as a result of the people's deep faith in Jesus, their love and concern for others, and their incredible generosity. 2|42 desires to emulate that first church."
He says the church doesn't duck difficult issues: "We have built congregations by telling stories of current-day issues and problems like drugs, narcotics, sex, lying, cheating, and stealing."
"People appreciate the willingness to dive into the tough issues of life," adds Davis. "We don't shy away from discussing money, politics, marriage, parenting, or any other conversation that could be awkward or difficult to navigate.
"We do not know all answers to every question. But we believe in a God that does. Tackling some of these tough issues isn't comfortable or easy, but it is absolutely necessary."
"People crave religion and are often turned off because they either don't understand or feel unable to live up to expectations," says Lindsay Bogdasarian. "At 2|42 they are attracted because they can relate to the message, which is positive and comforting."
The founder of CoachMeFit is one of several members the church arranged for me to interview. Since joining 2|42 in 2014, Bogdasarian says, she's gained perspective and peace. "I am more forgiving of others and let go of things that are out of my control more than I used to. 2|42 has provided me with the opportunity to be more of what I want to be."
On Wednesday afternoons, Bogdasarian hosts a 2|42 "life group" at her home. "It is usually about eight women," she says. "We talk about the weekend service and always go off on tangents. It is an incredibly helpful way to mentally download the service and apply it to our daily lives." There are also "restore groups," which, the website says, "address life challenges like grief, divorce, integrity and addiction," and "discovery groups" giving advice on everything from parenting and marriage to financial management. While that last one may not sound like a traditional religious concern, says leader Victoria Paye, a financial specialist at Duo Security, it's "a helpful specialty that many people need."
Marketing specialist Judith Mac got involved at 2|42 with her family in 2014. She likes that the church helped "replenish a local food pantry and gathered and sent dried meals to Haitians after the hurricane." And a sermon so inspired her that she joined four other members who traveled to China to volunteer at an orphanage there. "It was one of the most impactful events of my life," she says.
If 2|42's doctrine is fundamentalist, its good works recall the liberal Protestant movement known as the "social gospel." They're a big part of its appeal.
"The most common reason I hear for people liking 2|42 is the opportunity the church gives them to do something meaningful for others," says Ryan Bonner, a technology and compliance specialist at Brightline Technologies.
In November, 2|42 was holding a "Big Give" to raise money for special projects. At all three campuses, one-third of the offerings were earmarked for NewThing, the national network that trained and supported Dummit and the other "planters" who founded 2|42. Another third was earmarked to launch a congregation in Managua, Nicaragua. The balance went to local causes in each community.
Ann Arbor's "Generosity Project," headed by Bogdasarian, enlisted children to help raise money to buy furnishings for people who were formerly homeless. Lansing contributed to a program that feeds hungry kids on weekends, when they don't get free school lunches. The Brighton congregation supported the Pregnancy Help Clinic, which discourages women from having abortions.
2|42 is led by people who had earlier careers in banking, business, education, health care, or other fields. "We have enthusiasm to offer more to others through the ministry, and we look at the challenges and figure out how to make it work," notes Derek Alonzi, Ann Arbor campus pastor.
Keith Brown arrived this summer from a similar "community church" in Oceanside, California. He began an October sermon by talking about how he's decided which college football team to root for. Leaning toward Michigan State, he went to a game in East Lansing and met Tom Izzo--"I call him T-Zo for short," the pastor joked, as a photo of the two of them flashed on the giant screen. That sealed it--he went with the Spartans.
It might seem like a brave thing to say three miles from the Big House, but his declaration drew an amen from MSU fans in the congregation. And he's far from the first new arrival to help build 2|42. Brighton's initial membership of about forty people included several families that moved to Michigan from sister congregations in Chicago and Cincinnati. "We grow because many people faithfully practice sacrifice and participated financially from the beginning to make our church a reality," says executive pastor Davis.
The constantly expanding organization creates "a fair share of tensions to manage and problems to solve," Davis acknowledges. "They include parking many vehicles, moving hundreds of kids safely though our spaces, thousands of people through our building, and then turning around to conduct another service ... We add services to meet the growth needs. Each time we do that, it adds to the demands of our staff and volunteers."
Most congregations move much more slowly, expanding only after long internal discussions and fundraising. But 2|42 is "staff led." Historically, most Protestant congregations have been managed by their members, often through a board of elders that hires the pastors. At 2|42, the pastors nominate the elders; they "guard" against misconduct, but the pastors set the church's course.
They can move so quickly because they have a global support network. Though the Big Gives called on members to be "recklessly generous," 2|42 is not solely dependent on their gifts. Dummit was recently appointed North American director of NewThing, which counted 267 "reproducing churches" in 2015--and 1,176 in 2016. He's also on the board of the Colorado-based Solomon Foundation, which takes in money through "investments" structured like bank deposits and lends the money to churches in construction loans and mortgages. Its website homepage features a photo of 2|42's Brighton campus, where repurposed shipping containers add splashes of bold color.
"2|42's buildings are a distinctive church concept,'" says Haley Bodine, communications director. "Our Brighton and Lansing campuses are public community centers, and we use the buildings for church services on the weekend." The Ann Arbor website invites visitors to hang out and use its Wi-Fi, and in November, the new building hosted its first public event--a Christian rock concert. Says Davis, "Our members and participants find that the popular music affects them well and the rock-band atmosphere gives them a mind that can be filled with solace, comfort, and hope."
Davis says that much of 2|42's growth comes from word of mouth. "People who are new like to come back and bring friends, because we tell stories of life change, practice being generous and feel a sense of grace and acceptance, and take their next steps at their own pace." Members post yard signs, and the church periodically buys billboard ads; earlier this year, a billboard declared it "a church for people who don't like getting chased by bears" (which, when you think about it, is just about everybody).
"Billboards build recognition and awareness, and we grow when we tell our story," says Davis. "We try to do things on an ongoing basis, especially around Christmas, Easter, and the kickoff of the new school year."
Soon, such messages will be heard in still another Michigan community, because 2|42 is reproducing again: a Saginaw campus will launch in February.
My own spiritual quest in unending, but now, it's a joyous one.
I haven't been back to 2|42, but in November, on the second anniversary of Sandy's death, St. Mary's dedicated a service to her memory. As lector, I read the passage from Proverbs that begins:
When one finds a worthy wife,One's death never means an ending. I am enormously happy and grateful at what Sandy and I have created.
her value is far beyond pearls.
Her husband, entrusting his heart to her,
has an unfailing prize.
She brings him good, and not evil,
all the days of her life.
[Originally published in December, 2017.]
On January 4, 2018, Glenn Bugala wrote:
The writer plays fast and loose with terms like fundamentalist. Also, just because 242 says it believes God created everything does not mean that they don't believe in evolution. The church is primarily evangelical and it is a seeker church. Those would be the appropriate terms to use.
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