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Middle-School Mega-Church

NorthRidge's Saline outpost

by Sheila Beachum Bilby

Published in December, 2016

After the 2016-2017 Community Observer was published in September, we got an email from NorthRidge Church Saline campus pastor Justin Powell asking how to add his congregation to the Religion listings. Though we'd often passed the original NorthRidge on M-14 near Plymouth, we hadn't known a branch had been meeting at Saline Middle School since 2009--or that, with a reported attendance of 450, it was already one of the city's largest congregations. We asked Sheila Beachum Bilby to look into it.

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As a seven-piece band takes the stage and begins a fifteen-minute set of Christian rock music, people continue to drift into the darkened auditorium for a recent Sunday service at the Saline satellite of NorthRidge Church, a mega-church that conducts nine services every weekend at four different locations around southeast Michigan.

The music done and the collection baskets passed, Justin Powell takes to the stage to deliver brief announcements before the day's sermon from senior pastor Brad Powell, Justin's uncle, is beamed onto three giant projection screens at the front of the auditorium. For the next half hour, about 250 people watch Brad Powell's sermon, recorded the previous day at the church's main campus in Plymouth. On screen, the casually dressed senior pastor stands behind a small lectern that holds his iPad while he dissects Bible passages in a message called "Focus on Hope," which everyone present can follow with a fill-in-the-blanks "takeaway" handout.

Seven years ago, Saline was the first of three satellite campuses planted by NorthRidge, a nondenominational church that boasts a combined 20,000 members or regular visitors, with attendance spiking up to 29,000 for Easter and Christmas. Without a bricks-and-mortar presence in Saline, NorthRidge pays the Saline School District to use its 700-seat middle school auditorium for an 11:16 a.m. service every Sunday. (The starting time is a reminder of NorthRidge's sixteen-word mission statement: "Wake the world up to Jesus. Show them his love. Tell them his truth. Involve them.")

Justin Powell has been the Saline

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campus pastor for the past two-and-a-half years. "As much as we would love to have our own building," he says, "being in the school has helped us form that relationship with the community. Without having a building, without having a permanent place in the community, it's really given us a bit of a leg up."

NorthRidge-Saline joined at least seventeen other churches of varying denominations and worship formats in the city with a combined membership of more than 7,000. Long-established congregations still dominate, notably the First United Methodist Church of Saline with 1,056 members at the time the Community Guide was updated, and St. Andrew the Apostle Catholic Church with 2,000 families. Still, NorthRidge has found a place with a contemporary approach that combines Christian rock and video sermons.

Powell says some attendees previously drove to Plymouth, and others were members of other local congregations, but "our specific goal is to reach people who are not plugged into a church already." Today's congregation seems to be a mix of younger and older adults, trending mostly toward the younger side of middle-aged. While adults watch the video sermon in the auditorium, about sixty middle and high school students and another fifty children younger than fifth grade attend Sunday school classes elsewhere in the building.

Powell says that when his uncle was called to pastor NorthRidge in 1990, it was understood that he would help the church transition from Southern Baptist to nondenominational. Like the conservative Baptist convention, however, it continues to adhere to a socially conservative orthodoxy, opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Justin Powell acknowledges those positions have been controversial within the congregation, but he says NorthRidge has "continued to hold strong in those beliefs.

"Style and strategy will always evolve," he says, "but the truth that we hold on to is never going to evolve."

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Under Brad Powell, NorthRidge grew to the point where he was preaching live at two Saturday and two Sunday services in Plymouth. Saline was the first satellite campus to feature videocasts of his sermons; in addition to a single weekly service in Saline, there are now two Sunday services at each of the campuses in Brighton and Grosse Ile, which opened in 2010 and 2014, respectively.

NorthRidge offers a wide array of programs for all ages, from Bible study to business leadership to financial and estate planning. "One of our core values is actually relevance," Justin Powell explains.

That really spoke to Annherst Kreitz and her family, who started attending NorthRidge when it first launched in Saline. She says they were drawn by Brad Powell's preaching and its relevance to their lives, as well as the church's relaxed and welcoming atmosphere.

"NorthRidge has a phenomenal one-on-one ministry, especially for special-needs kids," says Kreitz, executive director of the Foundation for Saline Area Schools, who has a special-needs son.

"With so many young families coming, the relevant thing wouldn't be having a senior luncheon every week; it would be designing ministries around young families," Powell says. "So we really strive to speak the language that people speak and minister in a way that's going to reach people where they're at in 2016."

A smaller venue like the Saline satellite, Powell says, makes it easier to get connected with others and to see familiar faces from week to week, while still being able to take advantage of the resources available by being part of a mega-church. "If you have a talent, if you have a passion," he says, "odds are there's something at NorthRidge you can be a part of to use that gift or passion."

NorthRidge has a sophisticated website and a Facebook page with more than 17,000 "likes," but it also does more traditional marketing, buying newspaper, bus, and billboard ads around Christmas and Easter.

Austin DesAutels, who moved back to Saline three years ago after retiring as a federal government employee, responded to NorthRidge's simplest form of marketing: he was looking for a church to attend, and his mother suggested NorthRidge after seeing its banner on the middle school. He likes the small groups available and attends a weekly men's Bible study group.

DesAutels also believes strongly in "giving back." He volunteers with a local social service agency, and would like to see more of a connection between his church's ministry outreach and local community efforts such as food drives. "The purpose of the church is not just to go for an hour every Sunday morning and then forget about it," he says. "It's a two-way street."     (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2016.]

 

 
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