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Timothy Meinch is a reporter with the Des Moines Register. He covers the city of Des Moines and county government. Timothy graduated from the University of North Carolina Asheville in 2011 and promptly moved to Iowa to get married and pursue journalism. Since then he's chased stories wading through rural flood waters, pedaling a bike across the entire state of Iowa and following members of Westboro Baptist Church into their homes and picket lines.
Inside Hubbell Elementary School, no one seems to notice the spilled coffee or the snoring from a man who likely found no bed the night before.
Volunteers have set up banners, folding chairs and a mobile stage to turn the gym into a sanctuary, a task tackled each Sunday since Lutheran Church of Hope Des Moines began in 2008.
First comes hot breakfast, serving people from area shelters as well as other church members. Then 150 people unite in the gym for early service, where young families and working professionals mix with people in oversized coats and frumpy winter hats.
The scene contrasts with the original Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines, where cameras roll live in a 2,800-person auditorium that serves nearly 9,000 worshippers each weekend.
Hope Des Moines will move into a new home downtown this summer, creating an urban mission outpost of the largest, fastest-growing church in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denomination.
"We're saying to the city, 'We're here, and we're committed to you,' " Hope Des Moines Pastor Jon Anenson said of the move to a 10,000-square-foot former car dealership on the western edge of downtown.
The suburban mother church in West Des Moines, organized 20 years ago, has planted two suburban satellites — at public school buildings in Ankeny and Johnston-Grimes — as well as its urban outpost. But all congregations share the same engine, leaders say: people who faithfully return not only to receive, but also to give as volunteers and "be the church."
It takes an army of volunteers to overcome the challenges of establishing an urban church, to pick up passengers when aging buses don't start in a frigid Iowa winter, or to take the do-it-yourself route in ripping out carpet and breaking down walls to remake the car dealership into a place of worship.
The heartbeat of Hope's story and vision can get lost in the large numbers, church leaders say: 16,800 members, a full-time-equivalent staff of 114 and an annual operating budget of $7.95 million, according to a 2013 annual finance report.
But they say two other numbers are more critical: No. 1 is Jesus, and the other is the roughly 1,500 volunteers who serve the congregations each week. The identity of each congregation is determined by a central focus on salvation through Jesus, they say, combined with the volunteers who deliver that message and an ever-widening array of outreach services. The result often trumps traditional notions of what a church does and looks like.
Hope's pastoral staffers say the Apostle Paul, founder of the early church, established Hope's approach with a letter to the Corinthians in Greece: "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."
Hope Senior Pastor Mike Housholder puts the approach in simpler terms.
"Whatever gets the Jesus thing going is what we want to do," said Housholder, 49. "We hold a high view of Scripture, but we have a very free and open view of expressing ourselves in worship."
Hope's growth bucks nationwide declines
Growth of any kind counters the national trend in the Evangelical Lutheran denomination, which has seen its membership drop about 24 percent in the past two decades. The trajectory is familiar to most of the country's other mainline Protestant denominations.
During that same time, Hope doubled in size, doubled again, and doubled once more.
Today, an average of 10,500 people — enough to fill the city of Grimes and then some — worship at Hope services each weekend. Another 1,000 watch online.
Only four other Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations nationwide exceed an average of 2,000 worshippers per week, according to 2012 data from church headquarters in Chicago.
"Lutheran Church of Hope clearly has found new and important ways to connect with lots of people that is different than other congregations within our denomination," said Bishop Michael Burk, head of the church's Southeastern Iowa Synod.
Hope represents an anomaly within any mainline Protestant denomination, said Clint Jenkin, vice president of research at the Barna Group, a market research firm based in Ventura, Calif.
Mainline denominations struggle to get people through the doors and keep them engaged, numerous surveys by his firm have shown.
"To really build the relationship (as a church), you have to give them a task to do," he said.
At original church, campus mushrooms
The beginnings of what became a megachurch date to 1991, when 15 or 20 people met at various sites around the metro. The pace picked up in 1993, when Housholder arrived.
Then came formal organization and a move to a new building on Ashworth Road in West Des Moines in 1994, and the move to 925 Jordan Creek Parkway in 2000.
John Custis' commitment to the West Des Moines church has only grown since he joined 17 years ago, when he was one of fewer than 400 members. His family rarely misses services.
"Come hell or high water, we're probably going to be there," said Custis, 50.
Since he arrived, the Jordan Creek Parkway complex has grown to house Hope's main offices, a chapel, a state-of-the-art auditorium, a preschool, a bookstore and a coffee shop, all situated on a 24-acre campus valued at nearly $32 million, according to a 2013 financial report.
Custis said the site offers an exhaustive list of benefits and resources, but none is more evident in his view than the Holy Spirit.
"With 2,000 people, it's an abundant chorus in there," he said. "You get people singing together, heart strings are pulled on, some people start crying, and I can only explain that it's the Holy Spirit moving through that place."
Custis and his family live within walking distance of Hope Des Moines at Hubbell, but prefer to drive to Hope in West Des Moines.
The top motivator is Custis' son Daniel, 13, who has autism.
"They serve the special-needs people in our community from preschool through whatever age. That's a huge draw for us," Custis said.
Hope also offers 134 other programs and courses, including support groups for divorcees and addicts, vacation Bible school, job fairs and art gatherings. The specialized programming alone draws more than 4,000 people to Hope churches during the week, said Chris Gunnare, Hope's chief operating officer.
These resources, customized to each congregation's needs, are part of what fuels Hope's growth, its top leaders say.
"I don't get to decide if we're going to be a redwood in the forest, or a tiny little bonsai tree," Housholder said. "God makes the decision of how big this church is going to get, and I think it would be unfaithful to get in the way of that."
In addition to the local satellite congregations, Hope has paid for construction of 116 churches in the Republic of Ghana in West Africa.
That effort is part of an ambitious goal that Hope West Des Moines set years ago: to become a Zacchaeus church. Biblical tax collector Zacchaeus gave half of his possessions to the poor. The church's plan is to give 50 percent of all offerings to local and global outreach efforts.
Currently, Hope West Des Moines designates nearly 30 percent of offerings from the congregation — about $3.3 million in 2013 — to outreach, church leaders said. They expect to hit the 50 percent mark at the end of 2014, after they pay off the mortgage on the West Des Moines campus.
At city church, 'crazy little family' grows
Compared with the West Des Moines campus, the outward trappings of Hope's ministry are far different at Hubbell Elementary School, 800 42nd St.
Dozens of volunteers arrive before sunrise to transform the gymnasium into a worship center. The international flags remain hanging overhead. Construction paper signs line the walls.
"It's a gym. There's nothing pretty about it. ... It's about spiritually what's going on in this place," said Rick Werth, the church member who's leading the renovation of the church's new home.
Anenson refers to the past six years at Hubbell as a dating phase for his congregation. The church has united families, college professors and business executives with the jobless, the homeless and others in need.
Today, the homeless make up more than 10 percent of the regular attendees. Their attendance is what ultimately determined the downtown location, in the 1800 block of Ingersoll Avenue, about a half-dozen blocks from Central Iowa Shelter & Services.
Many who first visit Hope Des Moines for a hot breakfast or a place to warm up return for something else.
Kirby Talley, 53, says of the congregation: "People want to know you here."
Talley has known life in prison, drug addiction and homelessness. He was staying at a Des Moines shelter about four years ago when he first hopped on a Hope bus for Sunday morning breakfast.
That's where he met people who reintroduced him to a faith he lost several years before, when his mother died. He has since secured housing, started a painting business and regularly helps with setup at Hope Des Moines.
"We have become a part of this crazy little family," Talley said.
The crazy part is a love that always welcomes him back despite setbacks like a recent arrest, he said. "I've never seen any other place do what they do here."
Anenson views the facility, purchased in December for $875,000, as a way to expand Hope's ministry to struggling city residents and to partner with other organizations and area churches with a shared vision.
One is the Gateway Church, which started downtown nearly five years ago and meets in Des Moines schools' Central Campus, near Hope's new building.
Pastor Paul Stewart of Gateway sees Hope's arrival not as competition but as a golden opportunity.
"So many churches that are thriving are in the suburbs, and so many churches downtown are declining. And it will take more than one congregation to change that," Stewart said.
The two pastors met last week and planned their first joint outreach event: a vacation Bible school program in July that will use both Central Campus and Hope's new building.
That's the kind of work Anenson envisions when he talks about building the church.
"We have built a church for the last six years," Anenson said. "It's just not a building."
Growth expected at new Hope churches
Hope's Lutheranism is vested in the centrality of grace, faith and Scripture, a theology that emerged from the Reformation and won't change at any Hope congregation, Housholder said.
The message is delivered through every possible means: traditional services with liturgy and hymns, webcasts online, contemporary treatment — incorporating YouTube videos and a 10-piece rock band performance — and its exhaustive list of programs and services.
The willingness to adapt and reinvent worship style is a vital factor out of many that turned Lutheran Church of Hope into a redwood tree years ago, leaders say. They think it also explains why the "bonsai trees" that Hope plants mature quickly.
"You have to listen to culture," Hope's Gunnare said.
There's no map for a comprehensive future expansion, leaders say. That's for each satellite to discover and chart on its own.
Johnston-Grimes, where attendance has reached 470 in less than three years, is planning a unique partnership with the YMCA.
Ankeny is planning a $7 million-plus building project and has bought 20 acres to accommodate a congregation that now averages 900 attendees. Staffers think it could outgrow the West Des Moines campus someday.
The model of tailoring each church to the needs and desires of its community means that Hope Des Moines may never become a 50-50 Zacchaeus congregation, at least not financially.
But meeting the urban church's mission is not about money, just like it's not about a building, Anenson tells his congregation.
He fixes his eyes on another figure. Eighty percent of his congregation volunteer at Hubbell — at least 30 by necessity every Sunday — or other community outlets.
So he doesn't have to worry when buses won't start in the winter. It just means volunteers step up to shuttle congregants in personal vehicles.
Come summer, he plans to channel that spirit outside his congregation.
"We can take those people and that energy and that time and invest it in the city, rather than just serving ourselves," Anenson said. "I'm excited about that."
Published in the DesMoines Register, March 16, 2014 (Des Moines, IA)
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