“Why church?” could be one of the great existential questions of modern times.
It’s also the name of an Elk River, Minn., Christian congregation — WHY Church — that’s eager to help folks tackle deep, sometimes thorny questions about faith and organized religion, and experience church in a different way.
The church attracts a range of people: those who are familiar with religion, those who are curious about Christianity and those who are interested in reconnecting with a church but who may be turned off by some of religion’s trappings.
WHY Church members hold their services in the gym at the Elk River YMCA, with no dreams of moving or buying their own space. The Rev. Bjorn Dixon, one of the congregation’s two pastors, said they’re unencumbered with the expense and upkeep of a brick-and-mortar building, freeing up time and resources to focus on people, the community and good causes.
“We see ourselves not so much as renting from the Y but being partners,” said the Rev. Sonja Dixon, the other pastor and Bjorn Dixon’s mother. “We see the Y as a community well, a gathering place.”
WHY Church was started in 2010 at nearby Central Lutheran Church in Elk River. Both pastors were ordained by Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), though WHY Church itself is nondenominational.
WHY Church donates to the Elk River Y, and the church and Y partner on activities throughout the year: a cycling fundraiser, an annual fundraising dinner, vacation Bible school and Cookies with Santa. WHY Church’s name itself is a nod to its home at the Y.
Molly Hanson, executive director of the Elk River Y, said they’re grateful for the church’s donations of time, dollars and spiritual support.
“Having the church here, it gives the community another opportunity to take care of their health,” she said.
About 150 to 170 people attend the 9:30 a.m. service each Sunday. The pastors estimate that about a third are Catholic, a third come from Protestant backgrounds and a third are new to church life.
“The church is seen as an institution that carries baggage ... catering to their own needs as a country club church,” Sonja Dixon said. “It’s super important we find ways to connect people with Jesus, not just with religion.”
A buffet breakfast is offered during services, and people sit at tables rather than in pews. “Hospitality is such an important part of being a church community. A way we do that in our homes is sharing a meal,” Bjorn Dixon said.
The pastors Dixon forgo robes or stoles, instead dressing casually. Folks are encouraged to come as they are, whether in jeans or gym clothes. The church offers baptism and communion.
On a recent morning, the service began with children gathering up front for a lesson and blessing. A large wooden cross, greenery and lit candles were set atop a folding table.
Bjorn Dixon threw out a conversation starter to get folks chatting: What is a name that is important to you and why? That was followed by live music, a Bible reading and a message connecting the Scripture passage to everyday life and prayer.
Bjorn Dixon wove in references to “Star Wars” and “Saturday Night Live” during his sermon, drawing it back to the Christmas story as told in the Gospel of Matthew.
“No matter who you are or where you are from, God knows your name,” he said.
Many avoid church because they see it as a place for the near perfect, Sonja Dixon said.
“We recognize we are all broken people. The good news about Jesus is we are accepted as we are and loved as we are,” she said.