Burlington church doing ‘whatever it takes’ to calm a cultural current

By Blake Richardson

At first, it was just another closing prayer. Heads bowed, eyes closed — the usual at every church on Easter Sunday. But then the pattern ruptured.

“If you want to welcome God into your life today,” lead pastor Tadd Grandstaff said, “raise your hand.”

Curiosity snaps my eyes open. Are there any takers? I’m trying to scan the room while keeping my head still so I don’t make it obvious that I’m breaking the heads bowed, eyes closed rule that’s still technically in play despite what I’m witnessing.

“I see you guys in the front and you in the back,” he continues. “Come on. Who else? Maybe you’ve lost your way and you want to come back. This is your chance.”

God, why did you have to make me so short? All I can make out in the dim lighting is Grandstaff at the front and the silhouettes of heads surrounding me in my usual seat in the back left with my brother, Jack. There’s a sense of urgency in Grandstaff’s voice, but there’s also reassurance.

“I invite you now to come up so we can go pray together. Don’t worry. Nobody’s looking around. Nobody’s going to be looking at you.”

Oops. I force my eyes shut, and suddenly this moment surpasses my curiosity. Submerged in blackness, I realize that this wasn’t for me. None of it. Not the alternative service format that switched between short sermons and music, not the Philippians verses flashing on the screen that I wrote down using the free pen and notecard placed in each seat on Sundays, and not the black-and-white videos of people reenacting Palm Sunday and of others saying, “In a moment, my life changed when I accepted Christ.”

Nine hands shot in the air to take on this  life-changing step in the safety of Hope Church in Burlington. I was just a lucky observer. Leading up to Easter, Grandstaff told the congregation that, for many people, this is one of just two church services of the year to attend. Christmas is the other. For him, that meant today was show time.

Religion is declining in the United States. Millennials are the generation least likely to pray, attend church or consider religion an important part of their life. This cultural shift puts churches’ survival at risk. But not Hope Church. This congregation took the change as a call to evolve. And the result has left this church even more emblematic of Christianity’s original mission.

With unexpected obstacles, Christ calls for a change  

I was doing this usual, partying pretty hard with my friends, and I ended up in the hospital: alcohol poisoning along with too many drugs in my system.  I remember that moment like it was yesterday. I laid in a hospital bed, never being suicidal, and I prayed out to God for the first time in a long time.  I told him, “God, if this is all I am ever going to do with my life, then just let me die, ‘cause I can’t do this anymore. I cannot continue to live like this.”  I was miserable.  I knew I had been running from God. I’ve never heard God speak in an audible voice, but in that moment I felt God’s presence in my life like nothing before. I felt him, in my spirit, tell me that he was done with me, that he had a calling on my life and it was time for me to answer that calling.  I left that hospital room and made drastic lifestyle changes.

A relationship with God, Grandstaff said, is defined by a series of moments that mold your identity. This moment in 2000 was the first in a sequence of life-altering instants that drew Grandstaff to become a pastor. He knew God was calling him toward the job as early as his sophomore year of high school. His grandfather, father and older brother are all pastors. But it wasn’t until this moment that he decided to answer the urge.

After graduating from Liberty University and then getting married in 2005, Grandstaff launched Pine Ridge church in 2007, holding services at Smith Elementary School. The church was a resounding success, but then the congregation rose to 300 people. They had outgrown their place of worship. They needed a new home.

Meanwhile, Brookwood Church was encountering a different obstacle. Their pastor, who shared similar goals with Grandstaff, moved to Greenville, South Carolina. Who would run the services now? In the church’s search, they invited Grandstaff to preach there one Sunday.

“It was a natural fit,” said Peter Sawyer, first-time guest champion at Hope Church and former member of Brookwood Church for about 25 years. “We needed a pastor. They needed a building.”

For about a year now, Grandstaff has been working on a sermon series that will take the congregation through the entire Bible. He took a month-long break for an Easter series, but he is currently working through the story of Joshua. Grandstaff’s sermons have amassed a substantial popularity. The church has only been around for 3 1/2 years, and its already played with service times to figure out how to manage a growing congregation.

But the merging hasn’t been seamless. The two churches were different. Brookwood featured more traditional music, and Pine Ridge embraced a contemporary style of service. But the melting pot became a success because of the overarching mission that bonded the two churches together.

Do whatever it takes to reach people who are far from God.

Affiliating the obstinate in the toughest of times

Hope Church is fighting a cultural current.

People who identify as unaffiliated with a religion rose from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. That number is even higher among millennials, at 35 percent. Studies have shown that millennials are more mistrusting of institutions in general, but the change is striking.

And Christianity has moderately declined, too. The percentage of Americans who identify as Christian dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2015, according to the Pew Research Center. Grandstaff noted in a sermon that the number of practicing Christians is likely much lower. But this might not be the fault of the church.

“You see millennials holding to where they stand intellectually, morally, spiritually,” said Yaakov Ariel, a religious studies professor at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The United States has always been more involved with organized religion than other post-industrial countries. But since the Cold War ended in the 1990s, deciding against identifying with an organized religion has become more socially acceptable, Ariel said.

But denominations should not be concerned. Ariel said that across American history, the church has made changes to respond to drops in attendance and other cultural changes. Grandstaff said this is about shifting your target audience away from the regulars.

“The focus of too many churches has been keeping the people happy that show up each week and making everything be about them,” Grandstaff said in an email. “My heart has always been for the kids and students in this community because I know what it’s like to grow up in a church where you are bored out of your mind as a kid or a student.”

Those kids who were once doodling on envelopes in the pews are now grown up. Grandstaff wants them to want to go to church. That means changing the approach. And so he hatched a service plan that incorporated comfort in to the very fiber of the service and in the interactions with volunteers.

“One of the things we are passionate about is being authentic,” said Diane Sawyer, first-time guest champion at Hope Church. “We try not to be judgmental about what other people’s mistakes are because we make mistakes as well.”

Comes as you are when no strings are attached 

Jack and I walk through the door, and we are blind.

Once the timer on the screen up front hits zero, the lights fade to nearly black and the band starts to play. We’re five minutes late to church today. Well, I was five minutes late driving to Jack’s dorm at Elon, and he waited for me. So when we walk in, we’re submerged in darkness. I can barely see my hand. Wow will we find our seats?

“Here,” a voice says. A flash of light comes to life in front of us. How? Behind the illumination, I make out a woman with blonde hair in a Hope4NC T-shirt. We’re saved! As I get situated in a seat next to Jack with this stranger’s help, I can’t help but find myself in awe. They think of everything. And it’s always no strings attached.

Jack was the one that found Hope Church, and that’s why he kept coming back. That’s why his raving compelled me to join and why I’ve been continually drawn back. It’s laid back and meets you where you are. Where other churches failed to captivate me, this one clicked.

That’s also what set Hope Church apart for Jennifer Hanpole, position leader over guest services at Hope Church, who started going to the services three years ago. Hanpole drives from High Point every Sunday to volunteer with the church.

“I was a single mom at that time, working, and it was the first place where I could come to church and no one would really judge me,” Hanpole said. “I could actually sit in church and it feel welcome … It kind of felt like home.”

Every tiniest detail is geared toward making people feel comfortable. Why is it so dark? So you don’t feel like you’re being stared at. Why is the music so loud? So you can sing without feeling judged. The no-pressure environment makes it easy to engage.

“The come-as-you-are mentality … it’s probably the purest form of worship,” Jack said.

At the start of each sermon, Grandstaff announces that the church will give a Bible to anyone who doesn’t own one. And after I filled out a connection card my second Sunday there, I went to a booth outside the auditorium and received a free mug. No judgment. No expectations. Just kindness.

“We’re not trying to put on this façade that we’re perfect people,” Peter Sawyer said. “We’re just regular people that believe in Christ.”

I was most surprised three days later when I walked home from class, music blaring through my ear buds, and found a postcard in the mailbox by the door. It was addressed to me.

Blake, It was so nice meeting you Sunday. I am glad it was your second time back and hope that you join us again! Have a great week! -Tyler

I couldn’t pick Tyler out of a lineup, but that postcard has been resting on the shelf above my desk for months.

Something about Hope makes it seem like no other

Little droplets of rain ricochet off the tires to form a grey haze behind every car. I can only tell it’s water and not smoke when my windshield wipers quickly clear the fresh layer of wetness that has accumulated on the glass. I have two papers due the next day and work in an hour and a half — I need to get back — but the water flying in all directions keeps my right foot treading lightly on the gas pedal.

Maybe I could have stayed home — spent my Sunday collecting precious sleep instead of adding another far-away obligation to this world where time is divided like pieces of cake. Then the rain, my homework and my near-empty gas tank would’ve been problems I could have delayed addressing — even if only for an hour.

The changing millennial culture may seem to pose a threat to the survival of churches across the nation, but it’s not a problem without solutions. It’s a challenge. A call to evolve. And for Hope Church, that change has paid off.

Somehow the magnet of this church was strong enough to pull me out of bed at 9:30 a.m. and down the highway for a 40-minute drive almost every weekend this semester. Yes, seeing my brother every week is its own motivation, but there’s something about this place. It’s unlike any other church I’ve experienced.

“We realize that the vision for our church is not necessarily the vision that God has given to other churches,” Grandstaff said. “However, it is who God has called us to be.”


Edited by Ryan Wilusz