It used to be a Kroger. Now it’s a church, and I’m sitting on what was once the frozen pizza aisle.
On the stage, a small band kicks off the service with a hymn that sounds more like The Avett Brothers than Hillsong United. I don’t want to say their style is plain; that sounds too critical. “Simple” may be better.
“Simple” is an adjective that Church Project—a six-year plant located inside a converted grocery store just north of Houston—uses to describe itself. “Biblical. Simple. Relevant.”—the tagline is emblazoned on a black and white sign outside of its building. Their goal as a congregation is sharp: “We want to change the way people see Christ, Christians, and the Church.”
As the service continues, this vision emerges like a series of cardboard figurines in a pop-up book. There are no colored lights or flashy multimedia designs, no heavily structured transitions or fog machines. When one part of the service is done, the person holding the mic passes it off to the next leader in line. Their lead pastor, Jason Shepperd, preaches an expository sermon from 1 Thessalonians. He doesn’t exhort from atop the gray-carpeted risers; instead, he sets up on the floor, peering directly into the front row. His words are clear, and he doesn’t mince the text. There are some garnishes, but mostly meat. (Come to think of it, his podium is about where the deli counter stood.)
As I mill around after service, I’m surprised to run into half a dozen people I grew up with at another church. “I just got tired of all the ‘production,’” one friend tells me as we talk about how she eventually made her way to Church Project. “I wanted something authentic.”
Uprooted and Wandering through God’s Wild Wood
Last year, my wife and I found ourselves doing something we’d never done before: searching for a home church. After college, I’d worked as a youth pastor in the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex, and three years later we were hired at a congregation outside of Houston. Now, after a marriage spent in ministry, we were stepping down from pastoral employment and venturing out to choose a new local church—not one to pastor, but one to attend. (If you’ve ever been a minister, you know there’s a difference.)
Hoping a search like this wouldn’t happen again for some time, we decided to set aside a few months and explore what God was doing in the many local churches in our area. We desperately wanted to plant roots, but we also wanted to discover the wonders of God’s forest.
Over the next several months, we’d visit just under 20 churches, a few of them multiple times. Though mostly confined to the Bible Belt, these faith communities flashed like wild strokes on a Pollock painting. They represented large and small pockets of disciples and denominations from many nooks and crannies within the kingdom. I may not have agreed with every word I heard in them, but I soon realized that we mostly spoke the same language.
Church Project was the first church we visited, and it marked a way for the entire experiment. In reaction to high-production, low-substance congregations, Church Project’s goal is to connect back to the primal focus of ancient Christendom. Their way of “doing church” pushed me to reconsider how I did church.