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Mega-churches plant branches The places they grow are unconventional

Members of The Vine Wesleyan Church in Lancaster head to school on Sunday mornings -- for worship.

Pathways Christian Fellowship meets in the South Wales Community Hall for breakfast and worship.

The Chapel at CrossPoint, a suburban mega-church, will begin offering services next Sunday at a new church "plant" inside an Elmwood Avenue movie theater.

Church buildings, long equated with heavy stones and skying steeples, have gone portable.

The Vine hauls in what it needs for Sunday services on a 17-foot trailer. Volunteers show up at the Court Street School in Lancaster as early as 7:30 a.m. and unload speakers, a keyboard, a projection screen, even coat rack to transform the school auditorium into a temporary sanctuary.

"Whatever it takes," said church member Brad Bauer. "We have a lot of fun. It's like clockwork. I don't remember a day where we didn't get it done in time."

The 10 a.m. service lasts about an hour, and by 12:30 p.m., the volunteers remove any suggestion of an evangelical Christian church from the elementary school.

The Vine formed in 2005 as an off-shoot of Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Clarence, which boasts one of the area's newest and largest sanctuaries.

Rather than focusing on their own growth, mega-churches like Eastern Hills and The Chapel, both drawing upwards of 3,000 people to weekend services, are establishing smaller branch churches.

"It's going to look, sound, feel a little different, but the DNA is going to be the same," said Brek Cockrell, pastor of The Chapel at Elmwood, which will conduct its first trial service next Sunday.

"We looked all over at places," Cockrell added. "It just seemed like North Buffalo was a good fit for us."

>Before the movies

Churches using movie theaters on Sunday mornings, when cinemas normally are quiet, is a trend nationwide, and Cockrell went to Washington, D.C., to learn more about it.

"For us, starting out as a church plant, we don't have the money to build a facility like a theater," he said. "It allows us to take not years, but months, to get something started."

Many Christians are calling the new ventures "plants," a metaphor for growth.

The Chapel began laying the groundwork for its new plant in the fall, sending mailers to households within a 1 1/2 -mile radius of the theater. The church also booked a screening of "The Nativity" at Regal Cinemas and gave away free tickets.

Despite a mild snowstorm that November evening, 340 people showed up, said Cockrell, who introduced himself to the crowd before the movie started.

The Chapel at Elmwood is planning "sneak preview" services next Sunday and on Feb. 4, March 4 and March 25 before launching weekly services beginning Easter Sunday.

It also will rely on volunteers to set up and break down equipment for services in the theater.

>The disenfranchised

Pathways Christian Church emerged in August in an underused community center in South Wales, after co-pastors Frank Cerny and Todd Barnes spent weeks surveying several hundred residents of East Aurora about what they wanted in a church.

Cerny is a longtime East Aurora resident who teaches physiology at the University at Buffalo, and Barnes formerly helped plant churches for a Christian denomination in the Midwest. Both men have divinity degrees and are ordained.

In their surveys, the two men discovered a large group of what they call "unchurched, dechurched and nonchurched."

"There are a lot of people out there who have been disenfranchised in one way or another," Cerny said. "Young people, in particular, are more spiritual than we give them credit for."

Pathways rents the community center from a nonprofit organization for $800 a month -- getting exclusive use of the facility on Sundays and Thursday evenings. Attendance has averaged about 100 people on Sundays, said Cerny, and the group has had to move services to the larger second-floor auditorium in recent weeks.

The facility took some getting accustomed to, and Barnes and Cerny predict Pathways eventually will outgrow it.

But renting space has helped the church focus on ministries such as assisting a local food pantry and sending a team of volunteers to the Gulf Coast for hurricane relief efforts.

"It has enabled us to really look outward from the get-go," said Barnes.

Church members wonder whether they want to commit to owning a building, he said.

>More growth expected

Members of The Vine don't plan to stay put. They've already examined a few pieces of property and hope to locate a more permanent home in Lancaster soon.

When that time comes, church members said they anticipate more growth.

The Vine's services initially were held in William Street School. When the school district raised the rental fee, the group moved over to the Court Street School.

Several dozen Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church families from the Lancaster area pledged to commit to the new church for at least a year.

"They needed all kinds of people. Plus, we got the feeling we wanted to move on. We had the feeling we had to go somewhere and do something," said Sam Dicesare, one of 10 to 15 volunteers who help unload equipment on Sundays.

Members put word out about their unusual new church by staking lawn signs and hosting a fall festival. Attendance now averages 200 to 250 people. They pay $400 per week to rent Court Street School and have built up enough financial stability to look for their own property.

>New opportunities

Leaving the comfort of the thriving Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church wasn't easy, but Vine members said the move allowed them an opportunity to create something new.

"We felt a little more needed. Eastern Hills is so big," said Mike Sager, who works the sound board during services and is part of the set-up crew with his two oldest sons.

"I'll bet when we get a building, we're going to miss this a little," he added.

Leaders of the Western New York District of the Wesleyan Church, which is exploring other church plant possibilities, have encouraged The Vine to find or build a facility capable of accommodating at least 600 people, said Baldwin.

"There's a certain amount of credibility that comes with a facility," he said. "When you bring people a church, you bring them a whole context in which to grow in their faith."

Vine members are in no hurry, however.

"We're looking forward to getting a new building and all that," said Bauer, one of the morning set-up crew. "But for me, to be honest, I'll miss this fellowship with the guys."

The Vine's services could be held outside in the middle of winter, as far as Dicesare is concerned.

"Once you get the people, it doesn't matter where you're holding the service," he said. "It could be in a church or a parking garage."


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