Steve Whicker is busy. As the pastor who will launch Eagle Brook Church’s new campus in Rochester this fall, he has to meet with people who want to attend or volunteer, explore partnerships with other pastors in the area, and keep on top of the church’s website and social media.
The goal? Be ready to welcome worshipers at Mayo Civic Center in October.
“Often I have conversations with people who have never heard about our church, and I’m honored to let them know that Eagle Brook is a church where they will receive a warm welcome,” said Whicker, who has been with the megachurch for more than 11 years.
Minnesota’s mainline Christian denominations are witnessing sharp declines in attendance, but Eagle Brook Church is expanding. About 22,000 people attend the weekly services and 13,000 join in online, according to Karianne Langfield, communications manager at the church. The largest online audiences are in Minneapolis, followed by Iowa and Wisconsin.
The Rochester campus will be Eagle Brook’s ninth and its first in greater Minnesota. It already has campuses in Lino Lakes, Woodbury, Lakeville, White Bear Lake, Anoka, Blaine, Wayzata and Spring Lake Park.
“We chose Rochester because a group of people have been gathering at the Mayo Civic Center to watch our online services. Accordingly, they asked us to come to the city of Rochester and open a campus,” Whicker said.
Among the megachurches in the Twin Cities, Eagle Brook has the largest attendance, followed by Living Word Christian Center and Hosanna Church, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
“Rapid growth remains a hallmark of very large congregations,” the institute’s 2015 national report on megachurches said. Almost three-quarters of megachurches saw growth of 10% or more from 2009 to 2014.
Dwight Zscheile, vice president of innovation and associate professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary, attributed Eagle Brook’s popularity to the fact that it works to meet people where they are instead of making them jump cultural hurdles — unfamiliar music, architecture and liturgical language — in order to participate.
“They are willing to change how church is done for the sake of welcoming people who have no church background or have left church,” Zscheile said.
Eagle Brook’s origins date back to 1948 when Sam and Ethel Hane hosted services in their White Bear Lake home for what became First Baptist Church.
In 1991, Pastor Bob Merritt joined them. A few years later, the church changed its name to Eagle Brook with a refocused mission to reach people who are far from God. The church moved to Lino Lakes in 2005.
Today, that Lino Lakes campus — with an auditorium that seats more than 2,000 people and two giant video screens — is the main stage for a multimedia production with services that are streamed online and to the satellite campuses. Volunteers in control rooms that rival those of TV stations manage the live broadcast.
Weekend services start with a performance by a live band. There is no dress code for the pastor, worshipers and volunteers. The campuses have cafes, bookstores and kids’ services.
“This is a place where people are not judged and can have safe spiritual conversations,” said Tim Williams, online pastor. “They can be comfortable in who they are.”
At a recent service, visiting pastor Ted Cunningham of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Mo., shared a lighthearted message with worshipers about the importance of listening.
Daniel Elo, a regular at Eagle Brook’s Lino Lakes campus, said the model has worked for people in suburban areas.
“It is about having relevant information which one can apply in daily life,” Elo said. “It is about doing the little things in a better way every day rather than the big giant switch in your life.”
Eagle Brook saw explosive growth in early 2006 and tested the idea of having multiple sites in 2007 when a Spring Lake Park church dissolved and donated its facility, said Gari Pisca, the church’s executive director of operations.
Members of the church administration explored the idea of establishing a campus within a 20-minute drive of everyone in the Twin Cities, Pisca said.
Multiple factors help them decide where to put the next campus, including the density of the neighborhood and the potential to reach people. They also need a solid base of volunteers — Eagle Brook already has roughly 9,000 of them across its campuses.
“To be able to do church the way we do, we need thousands of volunteers,” Pisca said.
Each campus has a local pastor who lives in and serves the community. Whicker moved to Rochester in June.
“Most of the people here are aware of the church,” he said. “The ones who do not know are eager.”