Pittsburgh-area church thrives by adopting nontraditional strategies

Once on brink of folding, attendance has ballooned to 1,500 to 2,000

PLUM (AP) — At 50, Lee Kricher expected to spend the next 10 years making the best earnings of his life.

He had been climbing the corporate ladder at an international leadership consulting firm in Atlanta, where the Northeast native and his wife, Linda, relished the warm climate and friends they had made.

But in early 2003, Kricher received a call from a board member of Pittsburgh East Full Gospel Church in Plum. Lee and Linda Kricher had helped found the nondenominational Christian church in the late 1970s — and the board hoped they might return to save it from folding.

Weekend service attendance at the 50,000-square-foot facility on the church’s 20-acre, hilltop campus had plummeted to fewer than 200 people, a problem many churches are facing as the number of “unchurched” Americans rises.

Its physical presence had deteriorated after decades of backlogged repairs. Heating and cooling systems didn’t work. Mud and gravel lined the parking lot. The leaky roof needed replacing. Whenever a storm struck, dirty rainwater filled the grand piano.

“We just didn’t know what the Lord had in store for the next chapter,” recalled Joe Kubit, 53, a Butler attorney and longtime church board member. “We were concerned, ‘Is this church going to last?’ “

Barely a decade later, reinstated senior pastor Kricher happily reports, what was perhaps “the fastest dying church in the city” has achieved a stunning transformation.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 people attend Sunday services of the newly named Amplify Church, including more than 1,200 at its Pittsburgh East campus in Plum — now neatly paved, painted and lighted, with plush landscaping, parking attendants and colorful balloons affixed to welcoming signs directing first-timers to VIP parking.

The church has branched out to two more sites: another large campus catering to families with young children in Indiana; and a former nightclub in the heart of the Strip District on Smallman Street that has been converted into a worship center catering to teens and adults in their 20s and 30s.

“We are constantly just amazed that it just keeps on growing,” Kubit said. “A lot of churches are faltering, but we’re filling with energy.”

Targeting younger people

When he arrived in ’03, Kricher determined the main problem to be the disconnect between the church and community. Young families flocked to new housing developments springing up in the surrounding area, but the average age of churchgoers was over 50 and rising.

It’s a dilemma confronting churches and worship centers across almost every religious sect and denomination: Americans are shying away from organized religion in droves — especially the young.

Nearly one-quarter of U.S. adults identify as a so-called religious “none” — those who follow no religion or describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” the latest Pew Research Center data show. Religious “nones” made up almost 56 million American adults in 2014, up from 36.6 million in 2007.

Young people report being the least religious, citing reasons such as distrust in religious institutions and “too many Christians doing un-Christian things.”

Kricher set out to build a team of leaders and volunteers focused on becoming a “new-generation church,” a self-coined term he defines as one whose attendees are at least as young as the average age of people in the community it serves. They made an effort to cater to children and young adults, pare programs to the essentials and make worshipping more relaxed, contemporary and personal.

“The biggest thing started with a change of mindset,” Kricher said. “It used to be our church was good enough for our children. Instead, we thought, ‘What will it take to reach our children?’ “

The average age of an attendee at Amplify Church this year is 35.

Paring priorities

With the name change came a simplified vision and moves to make Amplify more inviting and relevant.

“Without changing our core beliefs or values, we said everything else is on the table — from our dress code to our style of music,” Kricher said.

Church leaders eliminated midweek services to focus on weekend ones and reduced the duration from 90 to 65 minutes.

They instituted a casual dress code. They prioritized engaging members in face-to-face conversations and encouraged everyone to join one of the new, small-group Bible studies.

They invested in musical rehearsals and concert-style music. They turned the chapel into a high-octane children’s theater with professional-quality sound and lighting.

Kricher cultivated a leadership pipeline by implementing “three-deep mentoring,” meaning each church leader should take on at least two mentees.

Amplify’s leadership teams took field trips to, and learned from, mega-churches such as Word of Life, a growing nondenominational church in Greensburg. In addition to featuring concert-style, contemporary music, Word of Life hosts a slew of programs spanning age groups, including GriefShare and Divorce-Care support groups, Kids Blast for children and LEAD for those ages 18 to 25. Like Amplify, Word of Life schedules thematic series in small groups and weekend services that span several weeks to help make lessons more memorable.

“I’m 55, so I’m certainly not going to be appealing to that demographic by my age, but the message of the Gospel is timeless,” said John Nuzzo of Victory Family Church, which boasts a 3,000-strong weekly attendance in Cranberry. “It just has to be communicated in a way that’s relevant, and sometimes, we put in the church world greater emphasis on our traditions than the message.”

Blowback to change

To fund the upgrades and focus, Kricher made hard decisions that didn’t sit well with longtime Amplify members. For starters, brass closed the church’s elementary school.

“That was a loss that we felt,” said Kubit, who had planned to enroll his daughter there.

They stopped doing their food pantry and hosting a drug rehab group, instead finding willing nonprofits nearby to accommodate those endeavors while continuing to supply the pantry with volunteers and money.

“People absolutely questioned those moves,” recalled Jason Howard, lead pastor of Amplify’s City Campus on Smallman Street in the Strip District, which has grown from 50 members four years ago to more than 400. “The problem is that we as a church were doing a lot of good things … but what we needed to do was a few things well.”

The changes prompted some older members to leave.

A few years into the transition, a woman in her early 80s, miffed by the casual dress code and contemporary music, told Kricher she understood that he was trying to draw younger churchgoers before pointedly adding, “Young people don’t have checkbooks.”

“But as people like that were stepping out of what was happening,” said Howard, “there were young families and young people stepping in.”

Sustaining momentum

One of those young adults was Rachel DeKleva, 21, a Dormont hairstylist who was raised Catholic but became turned off by what she saw as “a heavy set of rules and feeling, like, burdened and really judged.”

DeKleva has become what Kricher and Howard call a “social connector” by regularly engaging young adults and helping run “The U,” a Wednesday night group aimed at college students.

She found the group paramount to helping her cope with losing her mom to a heroin overdose last year.

Kricher’s “decision to start the small-group Bible study dramatically affected the relationships in the church for everyone,” Howard said. “The small group allows people to get to know the person on a much more intimate level — ‘My brother’s going in for an operation,’ or, ‘I’m going through a divorce.’ “

Twenty-seven percent of millennials say they attend a weekly church service, compared with 38 percent of baby boomers and 51 percent of the silent and greatest generations, Pew data show.

But similar to their parents and grandparents, a majority of people ages 18 to 35 say that at least once a week they feel “a deep sense of wonder about the universe” and think about “the meaning and purpose of life,” according to Pew research.

“Given their distrust of authorities and institutions, millennials are seeking out extended experiences or real or authentic spiritual relationships before they will commit to a world view or ideology,” said Paul Fullmer, chaplain of Lebanon Valley College. Rather than fret the trend as religion’s demise, Fullmer said he sees it as “a sign that spirituality within American culture is maturing.”

Kricher wrote a book “For a New Generation,” released last month by Zondervan, because he wanted to share the strategies that led to the turnaround in hopes of providing a “provocative but not prescriptive” practical guide for those seeking to revitalize an ailing church.

DeKleva said she would like to see more faith communities recognize that appealing to youths doesn’t have to mean compromising core values.

“Some people think that we are just too edgy and too new, that we’re not playing by the book so that our spiritual beliefs are not as strong as theirs,” DeKleva said. “I think people are just afraid of something new.”

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Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press.