Can I Get a Witness?
Vermont’s largest house of worship is searching for souls — and space
Brian and Laura Murphy with their Children Clare, Charlotte and Lee
The town of Essex Junction was covered in ice, but a little before 8 in the morning a few Sundays ago, some 200 men, women and children were filing into a nondescript white building just off Route 15. The lettering beside the double doorway read: “ESSEX ALLIANCE CHURCH. Making Friends out of Strangers.”
Inside, congregants and visitors browsed through informational pamphlets and mingled with church volunteers. An attendant in the lobby answered questions from behind a white desk. There was a pot of coffee in the basement, and smiling golfers looked down from photographs adorning the walls of the men’s restroom. As they drifted into the worship space, congregants passed a series of ceramic black urns filled with tree branches, upon which nested several fake blue jays.
Five potted plants, two keyboards and a drum kit adorned the altar. High above, four enormous, pastel-colored geometric orbs hung from the ceiling, and track lighting illuminated a modest metallic cross. As the 10-piece band took its places, a 40-person choir mounted the risers and began to sing: “In you I find my strength, Let the praises ring!”
After the music stopped, and a woman made some announcements, the crowd fell silent and looked to a rear entrance, from which emerged Scott Slocum, the lead pastor of Essex Alliance Church, sashaying down the aisle in jeans and a black blazer. Slocum has a Bachelor’s degree in Bible Studies and Theology, and he led churches in Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota before moving to Vermont in 1987 to pastor Essex Alliance, which was formed 42 years ago in a high-school cafeteria. A self-described golfing and boating enthusiast, he and his wife, Diane, have three children.
Wearing a wireless microphone, Slocum began the service by talking about the treacherous driving conditions his flock had braved that morning. “Here you are,” he said cheerfully, “you silly, silly people.”
Slocum then began talking about the economy. In an almost frantic voice, he said hard times breed fear and uncertainty.
“If you’ve been watching the news, you realize there’s a financial thing going on out there: Foreclosures are up, credit’s bad and people are saying, ‘What’s going to happen?’”
He continued, in a more somber voice, “God says you can look at the financial markets with a smile on your face, joy in your heart and be at peace. And I’ll tell you right now: When things get tough financially, there’s an awful lot of people that want to have peace.”
Slocum would repeat the sermon, entitled “Taking Control: My Money,” twice more that morning. It would also be shown, at 9 and 10:30, just before the late-morning screening of Alvin and the Chipmunks at nearby Essex Cinemas, a satellite location established in 2004 to take pressure off the church’s Essex Junction “campus.”
When it was all said and done, Slocum’s ice-storm sermon reached about 1500 people, which would make Essex Alliance Church one of the largest congregations in Vermont. Pending the approval of the Williston Development Review Board, Essex Alliance will soon begin construction on a new, multi-structure campus on 54 acres off Rt. 2A, near Interstate 89. The new campus will bring worshipers from three counties together under one roof.
Every week for more than a decade, Jim Wilkens and his wife, Chris, have been making the 45-minute drive to Essex Allliance Church from Johnson, where they moved in the mid-1980s “because we wanted our kids to play in cornfields.” Jim Wilkens, who sits on Essex Alliance’s Board of Elders and is working on a Master’s in theology at St. Michael’s College, says traveling long-distance to attend church is a reflection of changing times.
“In my romanticized vision of New England and rural Vermont,” he says, “I see white-clapboard steeple churches scattered through the Northeast Kingdom with a circuit-riding preacher who makes the rounds.” But, he adds, that vision is fast disappearing, “if not utterly gone.”
Even with its unorthodox digs, the Essex Alliance Church is looking more and more like the American religious phenomenon known as the “megachurch.” According to a 2005 report by Hartford Seminary’s Institute for Religion Research, megachurches are characterized by their size — typically more than 2000 congregants — a complex organizational structure that relies on small-group interaction and a charismatic male pastor. While half of all megachurches are located in the South, according to the study, Hartford Seminary researcher Scott Thumma has found four megachurches in Connecticut, “half a dozen” in Massachusetts and one in Maine.
“New England is the least megachurched place in the country,” reports Thumma, whose book, Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches, features an introduction by celebrity megachurch pastor Rick Warren. “But even in the last five years, we’ve seen some significant changes.”
Between 2000 and 2005, the number of churches whose congregations number greater than 2000 people has nearly doubled. More than half of all mega-churches describe themselves as “predominantly conservative,” while another third say they are “somewhat conservative.”
Essex Alliance Church is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an Evangelical Protestant denomination with more than 2000 churches and 400,000 members across the country. According to CMA doctrine, “The local church is God’s instrument for the evangelization of every man, woman and child in the nations of the world.” CMA congregations constitute “a body of believers” for whom the Bible is the inerrant, divinely inspired word of God. Christ’s second coming is imminent, CMA churches believe, “and will be personal, visible and premillennial.”
Slocum takes issue with the implication that to believe these things is to be politically conservative. He maintains that Essex Alliance Church is “evangelical in the classic sense,” as opposed to the politics-from-the-pulpit approach perfected by prominent evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Joel Osteen.
Although a red-white-and-blue brochure in its lobby reads, “Prayer support for our troops,” Essex Alliance doesn’t take stances on social issues, including abortion and stem-cell research. Indeed, the Christian and Missionary Alliance was one of 34 signatories on a July 2007 letter that criticized President Bush’s Middle-East policy.
Essex Alliance is only a “megachurch” by Vermont standards, Slocum argues, adding “It’s an issue of perspective.” The church may look big because everything around it is so small.
In places as close as Boston, Slocum points out, large churches aren’t viewed with suspicion. Moreover, historically speaking, church-going trends are cyclical. Today, he says, “people are more open to spiritual things” than they were in his parents’ era. Essex Alliance strives for cultural relevancy, says Slocum. “People tend to read the Bible as black and white, as opposed to seeing it in color.”
Scott Thumma says Slocum’s resistance to the branding of Essex Alliance as a megachurch is not unusual — “Most congregations don’t want to embrace that term because it has such negative connotations.” Still, he says, the church has most of the characteristics of a megachurch, and Thumma anticipates adding Essex Alliance to “our list of megachurches very soon, if it isn’t already.”
However it’s characterized, Essex Alliance Church’s style of worship appeals to Brian and Laura Murphy and their three children, ages 10, 12 and 14. Brian and Laura, who are both 45, moved to Burlington from Delaware in 1999.
Seven years later, they relocated to Essex. “We were looking to be a little more rural,” says Brian Murphy, who practices law in downtown Burlington. Now the Murphy clan lives at the end of a gravel road a mile and a half from their church. On clear days, their sitting-room window features a breathtaking view of Mount Mansfield.
When they first arrived in Vermont, the Murphys went “church shopping” at a handful of area congregations. One day, Laura’s brother spotted Essex Alliance Church in the phonebook, and they attended a service on a whim.
The family wasn’t immediately hooked, but they eventually came around. For one thing, the atmosphere was much more “celebratory” than the Murphys were accustomed to. They had been practicing Catholics as recently as the 1990s.
“The Catholic church was more solemn, more of a routine,” Laura Murphy explains, sipping a cup of coffee. “My heart wasn’t in it.” Unlike the typical scene after Catholic mass — “Everyone just heads for the door and leaves,” Laura recalls — people at Essex Alliance linger after services. “If you go pick up your kids, you meet some other parents,” she says. “It didn’t take us very long to get connected and feel like we were part of a big family.”
When her kids were younger, Laura was active in Mothers of Preschoolers, a church-sponsored women’s support group. Now, she and her husband do volunteer work with kidFusion, a kind of modern Sunday school that teaches biblical tales to children via dramatic presentations and multimedia technology. Her 14-year-old daughter was homeschooled until she entered high school.
Like megachurches, Essex Alliance Church has embraced the use of small groups to bond disparate members of a large congregation around common needs and interests. The groups, which cater to special populations such as teenagers, recent divorcées and seniors, are organized around 10 different themes. The church’s web page helps churchgoers browse a small-group directory by category.
“Anyone who regularly attends Essex Alliance probably wants that connection with a smaller group,” says Chris Wilkens, who, along with her husband, Jim, belongs to a small group that meets in Johnson. “[Church leaders] really encourage people to do that so you’re not just going to this big church where you don’t know anyone.”
Three years ago, Essex Alliance started ministering to congregants’ broader mental-health needs by forming Azimuth Counseling & Therapeutic Services. About 40 percent of the business’ clients have some affiliation to the church, says Executive Director Chris Wilkens. But she says Azimuth is open to anyone and serves eight counties.
Ultimately, the growth and structure of churches like Essex Alliance prompt a question about the changing character of American civic life: As religious institutions become larger, how does the practice of religion itself change? And, equally important, how will the communities in which those churches are located adapt?
In Vermont, a state known — and mythologized — for its strong civic character, a church like Essex Alliance can test time-honored traditions. Mike Cronogue, of the Society of Saint Edmund in Colchester, says that is already happening.
“Generally in the past, people would have a tendency to affiliate with a church in their own town,” Cronogue says. “Now we’re much more willing, and able, to travel. The sense of community, family, unity that was exemplified by town meeting isn’t as prevalent as it was before.”
Megachurches may be the suburban substitute for “town meeting” and the values it engenders. Cronogue acknowledges he is no expert on megachurches. But as a former director of the Edmundite Center for Peace & Justice at St. Michael’s College, he understands the link between religious values and community service. In the Catholic tradition, he says, a believer’s religious convictions are intimately linked with localized civic engagement.
Cronogue credits Slocum and Essex Alliance for catering to the “spiritual hunger” of the church’s members. However, he worries that the autonomy of evangelical churches poses a significant challenge to the more rigid hierarchy of traditional churches. That can have repercussions for mainline denominations, from how and when services are offered, to what Scott Thumma of Hartford Seminary calls “sheep stealing” — the slow exodus of mainline parishioners to a more modern style of worship.
“Ultimately, I think it’s a good thing,” Thumma says, “but not all congregations perceive that.”
The Rev. Gary Kowalski, of the Unitarian Universalist Society in Burlington, says he can appreciate Slocum’s “down to earth” message. But, Kowalski, whose church is the site of a weekly antiwar protest, suggests that Americans have always flocked toward “simple” theological messages at certain historical moments.
“Megachurches have a special appeal in places of the country where growth is fastest, such as Dallas, or other large cities, where the level of anonymity has reached epidemic proportions,” Kowalski says. “Here in Vermont, however, there’s a strong sense of rootedness of location, of civic-mindedness, of trust in town life and local institutions, that I think many people are able to genuinely experience community without the need for a newly built, Wal-Mart-sized community center to accommodate that need.”
Insisting that he bears no ill will toward Slocum’s congregation, Kowalski nonetheless has concerns about megachurches’ commitment to addressing social ills like poverty and homelessness. He hopes Essex Alliance will consider collaborating with area churches in organizations such as the 20-year-old Joint Urban Ministries Project (JUMP), which does advocacy work for low-income residents.
Slocum argues that Essex Alliance has already established itself as a charitable resource for Vermonters. Last year, the church, which has an annual budget of $2.4 million, worked with such area nonprofits as the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) and the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA). Over the Christmas holiday, church members raised more than $15,000 in supermarket gift cards for residents of several towns. And just a few weeks ago, the Murphys joined a 48-member service delegation on a trip to Mexico, where they built houses in a poor village.
Meanwhile, church programs such as kidFusion reach out to the local community. A few weeks ago, Murphy’s group of fourth- and fifth-graders collected used shoes and clothing and donated them to Spectrum Youth & Family Services. On the Sunday morning of Slocum’s ice-storm service, Justin Verette, Spectrum’s street outreach coordinator, and Gary Ballou, a 20-year-old who is currently living in Spectrum’s Burlington shelter, met with the children at Essex Alliance Church gymnasium. Randy King, a kidFusion volunteer from South Burlington, said the “large group lesson” of the day was selflessness. King made a point of saying to the kids and the slightly older guest speakers: “And I just want to applaud you guys — you define what it means not to be selfish.”
A girl with pink pants asked Verette, “Have you ever had someone come in with a newborn baby?”
“Yes,” replied Verette, who has tattoos and a scraggly black beard. “We actually have a couple young ladies who stayed with us at the shelter while they were pregnant. We helped them get into a program that helps young ladies who are pregnant get jobs and get their diplomas.”
Later, as he hoisted the bags of donated clothing into his van, Verette said, “This church has been incredible with donations.”
A couple years ago, Brian Murphy traveled to Lake Forest, California, to visit Saddleback Church, perhaps the nation’s most famous mega-church. Saddleback regularly draws more than 20,000 people to its Sunday services, and its pastor, Rick Warren, is the author of a New York Times bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.
Murphy and two other Essex Alliance members wanted to get a feel for Saddleback, which boasts about 200 ministries that do work in the church and community, as the Vermont congregation confronts its own growing need for more space.
Despite its size, Murphy was surprised by how Saddleback’s congregants stay connected to each other and the church. If Essex Alliance “went from 1800 to 3000 in three years,” Murphy says, “our experience would largely be the same. There’d just be more people connected in different ways.”
That kind of growth appears imminent for Essex Alliance. When the church proposed its expansion, in November 2006, the Williston Development Review Board expressed concern that a proposed 169,000-square-foot building plan was too large and included an excess of asphalt. Church officials downsized the design, and received more community feedback last March. The final plan has not been approved. If Essex Alliance does move to new quarters in Williston, it will unquestionably be the largest physical house of worship in the state.
Jim and Chris Wilkens aren’t “big-box people,” according to Chris. But they think the Willis-ton plan is the best response to the church’s growing need for resources. “I have to take some of the bad with the good we have today with our culture,” she says. “As we live, we have to figure out how to come to terms with the life we have.
“We didn’t intend to be big. What do we do, tell people they can’t come?”
Meanwhile, Scott Slocum will continue to deal with what he believes are misperceptions about his congregation. Some left-leaning Vermonters, he says, will label his church a “cult” simply because its congregants believe in the Bible. On the other end of the political spectrum, the “right wing” is skeptical of his congregation’s approach to dance and drama. “Sometimes,” Slocum declares, “we feel like a church without a country.”
Slocum is doing what he can to build up the connective tissue with the local community. While more than 4000 people are expected for an upcoming Easter gathering at the Champlain Valley Expo, Slocum has declared May 4 “Be the Church Day,” when members are expected to serve people in their local communities instead of attending services. In Slocum’s view, this approach challenges the common perception of “the church” as an insular hierarchy. “We don’t ever want [Essex Alliance] to become an institution,” he says. “We want people to live out the principles of what Jesus lived out every day; and as people live those out, then they are being the church.”