Church attendance may be dropping elsewhere, but in Woodbury, large congregations seem to just keep getting bigger.
When Scott Anderson talks about the experience of worshiping with 2,000 people at Eagle Brook Church, which is emerging as one of the nation’s largest congregations, he uses the word “connect” a lot.
Kids connect with each other at a lively game room. Volunteers connect in a cozy meeting place before fanning out to their duties. Other adults connect at a coffee shop — “What we really want to do is create a comforting environment,” he says. “In Minnesota, coffee is part of that.” And, as four weekend services are simulcast to Eagle Brook’s church campuses across the Twin Cities, making people feel an intimate connection to God amid that grand scale remains paramount.
“We strive always to be that church, that connection,” said Anderson, executive pastor of a congregation with nearly 20,000 members. “What we hope people feel is a sense of relevance — this feels relevant to me, this feels like home.”
After meeting for the past two years at East Ridge High School, Eagle Brook Church is about to get its new home in Woodbury, a $25 million, 75,000-square-foot building on 40 acres with a 1,500-seat worship center. Construction at the junction of Settler’s Ridge Parkway and Brookview Road will begin this spring, with fall of 2014 the target date for completion. The Woodbury City Council is expected to give final approval to the site plan on Wednesday.
The auditorium-type seating, the large stage where the exuberant style of worship and electric guitar-driven live music takes place, and the large screens for the simulcast message, will be part of the new building, Anderson said. It will also have a spacious lobby to encourage mingling and a resource center where members can check out educational materials.
Much of the church’s ministry focuses on young families and children, so there will be plenty of classrooms and space for child care and places that invite kids to do what they do best, just hang out.
“All of our campuses have these same elements, but each one looks a little different depending on where they are and when they were built,” Anderson said.
The site in northeast Woodbury, culminating years of planning and a $20 million capital campaign, will become Eagle Brook’s fifth campus, joining others in Blaine, Lino Lakes, Spring Lake Park and White Bear Lake.
But that’s only the tip of the steeple.
As Woodbury stands poised for a reawakening in housing growth — adding an anticipated 6,000 new homes in the coming decade starting this spring — four of its other largest houses of worship are gearing for growth as well, defying statistics showing declines in church attendance:
• New Life Church and Academy in south Woodbury, a congregation that also has a school serving about 650 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, is planning a mid-April groundbreaking on a two-story, 22,000-square-foot addition of a family ministry center and classroom space at a cost of $4.3 million, said the Rev. Mark LaFollette. “Every space we have, including the space we use for worship, is used virtually every day of the week,” he said.
• Five Oaks Church, also in south Woodbury, lies in the heart of a massive housing development that will start taking shape this spring. The board that runs the church is well aware of the challenge and opportunity, said the Rev. Henry Williams. “We’re trying to get ourselves ready.”
About 1,000 people worship weekly at Five Oaks, which has expanded its building in phases over the past decade. The church is right across the road from East Ridge High School. When Eagle Brook arrived, its officials discussed their plans with their church neighbors, Williams said. Like other pastors, he said Eagle Brook is a welcome addition to the worship community.
“With Eagle Brook coming, my feeling is it raises the water for everybody,” Williams said. “Eagle Brook is an amazing church that gets everybody talking, and our church very much has the same mind-set.”
• Crossroads Church, also in south Woodbury, plans to open its satellite campus in Cottage Grove in response to rapid growth on Dec. 1, said James Brown, pastor of worship ministries. It already has a campus in Eagan where, like Eagle Brook, its services are simulcast in conjunction with live music and a local minister who leads worship. “Crossroads has always had a steady growth pattern,” Brown said. “Every year, we anticipate new opportunities.”
• Woodbury Lutheran Church, one of the city’s most established congregations, has grown to about 1,300 members. In July, it took over a struggling congregation in Stillwater which has now become the church’s Oak Hill campus, said the Rev. Tom Pfotenhauer, senior pastor. It has also planted a stand-alone church in Cottage Grove called the Alley (the name is drawn from a Bible verse), and in 2005 purchased 44 acres of land in Afton that could become the site of another campus, he said. “We’re definitely trending toward a multisite ministry.”
What’s happening in Woodbury is typical of congregations considered “megachurches” — those that draw more than 1,000 worshipers a week, said the Rev. John Mayer, who teaches at Northwestern College and is president of City Vision, a nonprofit that tracks church demographics.
“Per capita, the Twin Cities has more megachurches than any metropolitan area in the country,” Mayer said, with 173 fitting the definition. Most congregations — 58 percent — number 100 or fewer members, but larger churches, though fewer in number, dominate attendance. “So they have kind of a higher impact.”
Mayer sounds like a real estate developer when he describes why big churches in Woodbury are ripe for even more growth: growing population, affluence, available land (“You can’t build a megachurch on 2 acres”) and accessibility to freeways.
Tyler Gregory, executive director of ministries at Eagle Brook, adds another, more spiritual element to the equation: need. By making a big church feel small, he said, Eagle Brook can best carry out its prime mission of reaching people.
“Growth is inevitable because there’s a lot of people searching for answers, for that deeper meaning in their lives,” he said. “We want to help you grow in your faith.”
Jim Anderson • 651-925-5039