Yes, Minnesota has a gigachurch. The baffled reaction of most hearers notwithstanding, it’s true.
For the unconversant, a “gigachurch” is one with average weekly attendance of at least 10,000. The United States has about fifty in total; about half of the states have none. Churches that reach this size frequently have wide-ranging reputations, with many people near and far at least cognizant of the church’s existence. In contrast, mentioning Minnesota’s gigachurch often triggers perplexed looks even from long-time Minnesotans. Yet this church is perhaps America’s 12th largest, with average weekly attendance currently twice the gigachurch threshold.
Over this past summer I became drawn to discover who this inconspicuous colossus is. And so a fascinating journey began.
My summer opportunity
Regular Sunday School teachers at my church (which includes me) are able to take a “sabbatical” during the summer months, when a seasonal format change requires fewer teachers. This gives our faithful teachers time to relax and recharge.
For the past few years I have chosen to use these times to experience the different perspectives of worshipping in other local churches—the breadth of God’s universal church is a wellspring of encouragement to me. I relish the chance to meet other Christians, to hear their stories, and to take away fresh insights.
Lest anyone is wondering, this is possible without forsaking my own church. Since we have more than one Sunday morning service time, I may attend my church’s early service and then a later one at another church, or vice-versa. Many churches in the Twin Cities area also offer Saturday evening services, providing further options.
It was during my visits to one church this summer that I experienced a realization that led to this article.
A church’s rebirth
Twenty years ago, an established congregation of 350 in a quiet suburban community was challenged by its new pastor to abruptly change its ways. The First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake, Minnesota felt comfortable to its members and regular attenders. It was like a home. But there was a problem. To outsiders, the church also was like a home—a stranger’s home. They did not always feel welcomed. And Pastor Bob Merritt was determined to change that.
“Bob” (as he is simply known to many at the church today) grew up as the son of a Baptist pastor. Following his own call to vocational ministry, he had received his M.Div. several years earlier, pastored the rural First Baptist Church in Falun, Wisconsin for five years, and had recently completed a Ph.D. in Speech Communications at Penn State University (an unusual but surely useful tool for a preacher). With his young family, Bob arrived in White Bear Lake with little in the way of earthly possessions but with plenty of self-doubts. (His 2011 book When Life’s Not Working discusses this period in some detail.) By his account, he was hardly alone at the church in questioning the new pastor’s abilities. He writes that he considered quitting that first year.
Although his second pastorate got off to a humbling start, Bob’s vision for the church eventually began to gather support. His passion for evangelism had been demonstrated in Falun, where membership had tripled to about 200 during his tenure. Here, the potential harvest was vastly greater. The White Bear Lake church was in proximity not to hundreds, but to hundreds of thousands. The metropolitan area of Minneapolis/St. Paul and their suburbs encompasses over three and one-half million souls. To reach more of these people with the gospel of Jesus Christ, the congregation purposefully set out to create the outward focus it lacked. This took courage. Churches, more than just about any other entity, can suffer from institutionalism. Proposals to change beloved traditions, preferences, or practices can quickly lead to animosity.
Today, the rechristened “Eagle Brook Church” is by far the largest congregation in Minnesota. Now a multi-site, it is “1 Church: 6 Locations.” Although “Baptist” is no longer a part of its name, the church did not abandon its Baptist roots. It is the largest church affiliated with Converge Worldwide, otherwise known as the Baptist General Conference. A pledge often heard at the church is that they will do “whatever it takes” to reach others for Christ. Backing these words is ongoing planning to accommodate seemingly endless growth. Over the past twenty years, their annualized growth rate exceeds 20%.
The 6 locations
Each of the locations offers four identical weekend services: Saturdays at 4 pm and 6 pm, and Sundays at 9 am and 11 am. I took advantage of a mix of these times during my visits. Each location (including both Woodbury sites) received at least one visit, with thirteen visits in total. In their chronological order of opening:
- White Bear Lake: Opened in 1972. (First Baptist Church, which was founded in 1948, moved here from an earlier building.) Seating capacity: 800.
- Lino Lakes: Opened in 2005. Seating capacity: 2,100.
- Spring Lake Park: Opened in 2007. Seating capacity: 710 (560 in the main auditorium, plus 150 in an overflow room).
- Blaine: Opened in 2010. Seating capacity: 840.
- Woodbury: Opened in 2011 in East Ridge High School. Seating capacity: 940. Moved in 2014 to its permanent building. Seating capacity: 1,500.
- Coon Rapids: Opened in 2013 in Coon Rapids High School. Seating capacity: 1,000 (approx.). A permanent building is planned eventually.
Total seating capacity per service time is about 6,950 (up from 6,390 since Woodbury’s relocation). My observational guess is that about 40% of their total attendance is on Saturdays and about 60% is on Sundays. (Incidentally, their very first Saturday service, at White Bear Lake, drew 55 people.) Of the locations I visited at 11 am on Sundays only Coon Rapids appeared to have much available seating capacity, but even this location (their newest) looked about 2/3 full.
With added service times and an energized congregation’s drive to fill them up, attendance on the 2013 Easter weekend was over 35,000. (I have not seen the comparable 2014 figure.)
Attending Eagle Brook
Drive up to any Eagle Brook campus and if you aren’t 90 minutes early, as I typically was when attending a day’s first service, you’ll be greeted initially by friendly volunteers directing traffic. If you’re at Spring Lake Park, you might even catch a ride on the shuttle bus that runs on a continuous loop from an overflow lot down the street.
If you have previously attended another Eagle Brook location, walking into any of their other locations will instantly feel familiar. Each has its own personality, yet common decorative elements abound. Uniform signage reiterates the Eagle Brook “brand.” Even at Coon Rapids you will find portable versions of the coffee cafes and bookstores that are requisites at each of the permanent locations. Helpful yet unobtrusive greeters will be on duty. Information displays are eye-catching and well-stocked. Pick up a specialty coffee and a pastry, and strike up a conversation with someone else—if someone hasn’t already struck up a conversation with you.
Fifteen minutes before each service a countdown timer appears in one corner of the flat screen monitors in the lobby and on two large side screens at the front of the auditorium. Simultaneously, a rotating series of video announcements might be displayed. In what probably can be comprehended only by experiencing it, a palpable sense of anticipation builds. As the timer winds down, stragglers make their way into the auditorium. Promptly at “00:00” the service starts.
“Put your hands together!” the Worship Pastor might exhort the congregation as everyone rises to their feet. They will remain standing through 4 or 5 guitar-driven contemporary Christian songs, interlaced with prayer. As the lyrics are projected on the two large side screens they are often juxtaposed with corresponding Scripture verses, visually tying the songs to God’s Word (a practice I personally find very edifying).
As the singing ends, visitors might be expecting ushers to appear. It’s time to take up the offering, right? Not so fast. Eagle Brook stopped “passing the plate” during services some time ago. Instead, they encourage people to give via various electronic means or by placing currency or checks in secure drop boxes outside the auditorium.
Other than an offering, numerous other church activities might fill the service’s next segment. Perhaps there is a campus-specific announcement to be made, or child dedications will be held, or the campus pastor will simply share whatever is on his heart. You might hear the changed-life testimonies of some who are going to be baptized at an upcoming all-church lake gathering, as I heard at two locations. Or maybe you will be encouraged to join in a local outreach effort such as the church-wide drive this past August to fill 9,000 backpacks with back-to-school supplies—and a presentation of the gospel geared toward students—to be distributed at some local public schools. Whatever the occasion, this segment of the service never seemed either hurried or prolonged, although proper timing is essential for synchronization with what happens next.
As a brief video introduction to the message plays on the two side screens, at five of the locations a larger, third screen descends between them, stopping inches from the platform’s floor. Via simulcast from Lino Lakes, today’s teaching pastor then appears on all three screens. On the center screen, he is essentially life-sized at the place he would be if physically present. The two side screens display larger than life-sized close-ups. The illusion is excellent. I never found this distracting; in fact, with digital sound and video and the side screen close-ups, I could both see and hear the teaching pastor at any Eagle Brook simulcast location better than at many churches I’ve attended where the speaker is physically present.
Whether from Bob, Teaching Pastor Jason Strand (the other primary speaker), or whomever else, the messages at Eagle Brook are typically 35 to 40 minutes in length. At their conclusion, anyone with a spiritual need is urged to talk with waiting pastors or other prayer team members at each campus. Six weekends per year, communion is observed at the end of services.
The culmination of my journey
Throughout my months spent getting to know Eagle Brook Church by talking (although I hope mostly listening) to its people, reading its stories, researching its history, observing it in operation, and absorbing its culture, something became crystal clear. In a church awash with large numbers, the only number I saw truly mattering to anybody is one. That is the number that represents each person, each soul, entering its doors.
The emphasis I saw on reaching people individually at wherever they are spiritually came to a head one Sunday morning at 11:00 a.m. As I looked around the full (overflowing, actually) 940 seat auditorium at the Woodbury location’s temporary home in East Ridge High School, the realization I alluded to earlier hit me: “There isn’t a fundamentalist church in Minnesota with as many people as are here right now.” Moments later lightning flashed again: “Eagle Brook has more people than all of Minnesota’s fundamentalist churches combined.” These insights should not have come as surprises to me. I am reasonably familiar with the fundamentalist churches around the state.
That afternoon I examined the local organization City Vision’s annual listing of the 100 largest Twin Cities protestant churches. Topping the list is Eagle Brook. The church in 100th place has average attendance of about 800. At least half of the 100 are evangelical; the rest are an assortment of churches representing liberalism. What is not listed is a single, identifiable fundamentalist church. (To be clear, all fundamentalists are evangelicals, but not all evangelicals are fundamentalists. My references here to “evangelicals” and “evangelicalism” are to evangelicals who are not fundamentalists.)
Pondering this fact for the next few days, its significance became obvious. Fundamentalism is only a minor participant in the spiritual life of the Twin Cities. The great majority of people coming to faith in Christ do so under the influence of the much larger local body of evangelical churches. For a century-old movement that claims as its marching orders the Great Commission, this raises a piercing question: Why is fundamentalism not reaching more people in the Twin Cities with the gospel?
As I continued to visit Eagle Brook’s locations, I found myself surveying Blaine’s crowd at 6 o’clock one Saturday evening. The scene was inspiring. Around me was a diversity of people like I have never seen in area fundamentalist churches, or in more traditional evangelical churches. Distinctions of age, income, and race seemed irrelevant. The stereotypical homogeneity of most churches was nowhere in sight. The “missing” 18 to 29 generation? Many were there. A young woman came in alone and sat down across the aisle from me. With her short skirt, tinted hair, and tattoos, I couldn’t picture her in a fundamentalist church. For sundry reasons, she likely would never pass through the doors. Yet there she was. Was she a first-time visitor? What brought her there? My curiosity was stirred. As the service ended, I glanced over. She was motionless. Tears trickled down her cheeks. I was not the only one who saw her distress. A second young woman approached, sat down, and quietly began to counsel her. If my impression of that moment proved correct, angels in Heaven were soon rejoicing.
As I later reflected on that young woman and on others I encountered who churches often treat as outcasts, I had my answer. The reason Eagle Brook has baptized over 3,500 converts in the last two years is because people like her are genuinely welcomed and shown grace. It’s as simple as that. People are sometimes deterred by churches, but whether one views the path to justification through the lens of Calvinism, Arminianism, or some hybrid of the two, the gospel cannot be thwarted. People will inexorably continue to come to Christ. What Eagle Brook provides for many is a path of lesser resistance.
The apostle Paul certainly believed in making the gospel as obstacle-free as possible. Doubtless mindful of his younger self, he wrote, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18 ESV). Recognizing the “offense of the cross” (Gal. 5:11 ESV), he spoke as one formerly offended. He knew better than most what a formidable barrier the gospel (by itself) is for people to overcome. So it should come as no surprise that he elected to engage listeners on their own terms:
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-23 ESV)
Notice that to Paul, this was entirely his responsibility. He did not expect unbelievers to conform to his standards or implicitly meet his approval. (He obviously demanded behavioral changes when listeners became believers.) Nor did he expect them to meet him halfway. The onus was entirely on him. He willingly adapted his methods to the culture of his listeners, to speak to them in relatable ways. (As an example, the Bible more than once records him quoting from classical Greek sources, which surely resonated with those audiences.) Wanting others to experience the limitless mercy and grace he had received, Paul gratefully became “a servant to all” for “the sake of the gospel.” That is the attitude, encapsulated, that I repeatedly saw the people of Eagle Brook striving to emulate. They make it their primary mission to not deter secular urbanites, to be able to “win more of them.”
By this point, I suspect that many readers are asking a question similar to one that occurred to me near the start of my visits. Here is how I perceived it: are these masses being grounded and growing stronger in their faith, or is Eagle Brook the proverbial “mile wide and inch deep?” This is a crucial question. If its thousands of converts are stuck in spiritually immaturity, then Eagle Brook is failing at a vital responsibility. I’m referring to discipleship, of course. As merely an outside observer, regardless of the number of my visits, it would be presumptuous of me to speak authoritatively. After all, my attendance was limited only to weekend services, and not to any other programs. Nevertheless, permit me to make some observations which are indicative of, or at least support, spiritual growth:
- Their large number of baptisms, which represent a very high percentage of their recorded professions of faith, is indicative of their success in encouraging and guiding new believers to take this step. Just this past summer, over 900 were baptized on one Sunday afternoon alone at their annual, all-church gathering at a local lake.
- Regular, personal Bible reading and prayer are consistently modeled as essential to Christian growth. I heard Bob on more than one occasion entreat the congregation to make these a daily priority.
- Thousands of “Eagle Brookers” of all ages attend classes or small groups on Sundays, Wednesdays, or on other days throughout the week. In the case of small groups, they are a way to make this large church feel both smaller and more personal.
- Thousands serve each other and visitors in volunteer positions. With two services on each weekend day, the idea is to attend one service and to serve during the other. Whether as teachers, small group leaders, nursery workers, musicians, greeters, service hosts (Eagle Brook’s version of ushers), parking attendants, tech team members (I was shown the workings of one of their production rooms, nicknamed “Houston”), baristas in the coffee shops, or in numerous other roles intended to create the seamless, welcoming environment they strive for, Eagle Brookers are willing servants. Personally, I endorse the “Dead Sea” theory of service for Christians: It doesn’t matter how much “inflow” there is (i.e. preaching, Bible study, etc.) in a Christian’s life, if there is no corresponding “outflow” (i.e. service/ministry to others) then a Christian risks becoming stagnant. Christians need to serve others in the “work of ministry.” (Eph. 4:12 ESV)
- You would expect a large church to have large revenues, and you would not be mistaken. Eagle Brook’s general fund income was $18.1 million during fiscal year 2013-2014. Nevertheless, in a church with many young Christians and visitors not everyone is a committed giver, and this fell about $400,000 short of the budget. In the single time I heard money discussed, Bob mentioned this fact to briefly challenge non- or irregular givers to make giving a regular event. In the following week, 288 new automatic-debit accounts were set up with the church (likely erasing the deficit). Beyond giving to the general fund, Eagle Brook’s people also give substantial amounts for overseas missions and to local outreach projects (remember the 9,000 backpacks filled for local students?). The topper, though, is the tens of millions that people have additionally given over the years to construct campuses they personally may never visit, to accommodate people they may never see. As one example of the congregation’s collective generosity, when they built the Blaine campus they paid off the entire $14 million cost (land, construction, furnishings, technology) in only 20 months—even when the church had several thousand less people than at the present. Today, Blaine operates essentially at capacity, with average weekly attendance of over 3,300.
- The “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22-23 ESV) was evident in the pastors and laypeople whom I met. I could give numerous examples of those who went beyond any expectations I might have had in extending to me a warm, authentic welcome. I am thankful to them for their time and hospitality.
So is Eagle Brook the hypothetical perfect church? Absolutely not! I cannot imagine anyone I met at the church tolerating such a notion. Any organization made up of sinful people—even if redeemed ones—will undergo problems. Eagle Brook’s history does not belie that. Yet the people of this church have largely managed to transcend personal preferences and petty disagreements in a concerted effort to reach others for Christ.
I recognize that fundamentalism disapproves of some of Eagle Brook’s methods. Almost certainly first and foremost is their choice of music. From there, the list expands. To be candid, I’m sure that Eagle Brook would view most of fundamentalism’s desired changes as hindrances to reaching the lost. The reason is that the people they are reaching are often deterred by fundamentalism’s methods. (Please allow that to sink in.) My point is not that fundamentalism’s methods are wrong, but that fundamentalism’s methods are not the only means of reaching people with the gospel. One style does not suit all! (Would Paul disagree?)
If I make it back to Blaine next summer, perhaps I’ll again see the young woman who was dressed for a night out club-hopping but who apparently met her Savior that evening instead. This time, she might be the one who sees a disconsolate young woman at the conclusion of a service, and who approaches her with the hope of the gospel. In the meantime, I’m confident that the people of Eagle Brook Church will continue doing “whatever it takes” to make that possible.
Larry Nelson is a graduate of Fourth Baptist Christian School (Plymouth, MN), holds a BA in history from the University of Minnesota, and has been employed in banking since 1990. He is a member of a Baptist church in the Minneapolis St. Paul area.