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Inside Columbus' Pop-Up Churches, A Gospel For The Young And Unreligious

Five14 Church, in New Albany, is a "pop-up" church that has seen huge growth among young worshipers.

Sunday services at Five14 Church begin loud.

Worshippers are greeted into with heavy bass and synth beats. The morning starts off with a game, delivered by a standup comedian. At the nondenominational New Albany church, this is gospel.

Pastor Joel Kovacs, presiding over worship with jeans and a hoodie, says comedy can help open hearts.

"I don’t think it’s fluff. I think it’s incarnation,” Kovacs says. “I think it’s like taking the Word and becoming flesh and trying to like connect with people."

A Church For The Irreligious

Founded in the Columbus suburb in 2010, Five14 is a "pop-up church" – a house of prayer that planted itself wherever space was available. In Five14’s case, that meant a high school gym.

Local nontraditional pastors like Kovacs predict about 20 such churches have sprung up in Central Ohio since 2010. Big ones like One Church in Gahanna, Movement Church in Hilliard and Rock City Church in Columbus attract 1,000 or more attendees each weekend. A couple dozen more boast about 200 attendees or fewer. 

As it turns out, pop-churches are finding a growing audience among the country's least religious demographic - millennials. 

“We don’t assume that people care about God," Kovacs says. "We don’t assume that people know about Him."

Credit Five14/Facebook
A baptism at Five14. The church's pastor says they don't assume people already know about God.

The number of adults in the U.S. who say they believe in God or regularly attend a religious service has been on the decline for years nationwide, but is on the rise in Ohio. 

Matt Meacham, 31, says he isn't even a Christian. He came to Five14 for the first time just because he was curious.

“I am seeking and trying to learn more about religion,” Meacham says. “And my fiancée’s co-teacher has been coming forever and said it would be a great place to learn.”

He says all he wants is a better understanding. That's something pastors see often.

Nick Nye, founder of Veritas Community Church, says they get a lot of explorers - people just looking for a deeper meaning to life, but who are not sure where to find it.

“That’s what young people really want, is that authentic connection to the community and city, but also that theological foundation,” Nye says. “That real grounded in ‘not everything is relative.'”

Preaching To The Young

Nye started Veritas, which means "truth" in Latin, in 2008. It began as four people in Nye's living room. Three years later, they started renting building space.

“It was creepy for people coming into this dumpy warehouse,” Nye says. “Our carpet is our pride and joy: coffee-stained, dirty and authentic.”

About 600 people regularly attend their services in the Short North. Add in their locations in Upper Arlington, Hilltop and Eastside, some 1,100 people worship with Veritas every weekend.

About 90 percent of them are young adults. 

“A lot of other pastors come to me and they say, ‘OK, how are you reaching all these young people?’" Nye says, laughing. "And I’m asking them, ‘How do you reach some old people?’”

Being in the Short North helps attract a younger crowd, Nye says.

“A lot of people move here to get away from maybe rural, suburban mindsets of like, ‘Christianity is the normal American thing to do,’” Nye says.

August Brunsman, a self-described atheist who lives in the Short North, says he noticed the church's growth and is happy to have them - as long as they keep with the neighborhood's atmosphere. 

“I think if they decided to bring a really aggressive anti-LGBT, anti-self-expression, that might be an issue,” Brunsman says. “I haven’t noticed anything changing in the neighborhood values-wise or anything like that that has really been disturbing to me."

Credit Rock City/Facebook
Many pop-up churches, like Rock City, attract a much younger crowd than traditional churches.

Growing Up - And Older

According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of people keep the same faith in which they were raised. But local pastors say they're seeing exactly the opposite: the older adults coming to pop-up churches are mostly being introduced by their children.

Beniva Ganther, 20, and Christina Ganther, 18, introduced their parents to Veritas a few years ago.

“We had a friend in college who recommended this church who goes to OSU, and he said it was good," Beniva says. "So we decided to give it a shot."

Whether planted in a gym, like Five14, or a movie theater, like Rock City at Lennox’s AMC Theatre, pop-up churches are seeing their numbers still grow - sometimes beyond capacity.

“We’re getting to that place where we have to have overflow,” Kovacs says.

He says 60 percent of church growth is from transfers, typically from mainline branches of Christianity like Lutheranism or Catholicism.

The next step for Five14 is finding a space of its own to settle down. Kovacs says they purchased eight acres off Hamilton Road and OH-161, and so far have raised $10.5 million for their expected $12 million project. They expect to start building this year. 

Rock City Church began hosting services at Westerville Central High School at the end of January. According to Katie Fisher, the church's executive director, about a thousand people came to the launch. Meanwhile, the church purchased land off Britton Parkway and Hilliard, hoping to break ground on a new building of their own this fall.

And, according to Kovacs, some pop-up churches are even considering expanding beyond the physical world.

“We’re trying to develop an online campus. The church needs to get onboard,” Kovacs says. “Again, they need to be incarnate on the Internet.”