Filling the pews – Part 2: Reaching the young

Photo by Montrose Church. The young are not just the future, but the present according to Pastor Dave Roberts of Montrose Church, which reaches out to its young members.

By Brandon HENSLEY and Mary O’KEEFE

In the 1970s, 13% of Americans, ages 18 to 29, described themselves as not affiliated with any religion. A recent study found that in 2010, 25% of Americans in that same age range are unaffiliated with a specific religion. In the western states that number jumps to 48%. Among that percentage are people of higher levels of education and higher levels of income.

To survive, churches have to have a strong youth base. Without it they grow old along with their congregation. But how do you get soccer Sunday, text happy, over scheduled tweens and teens to put one day a week aside to work on their soul instead of their Facebook status? There is a pastor in the community that may have found the secret of making God cool.

For a while now, the members of Montrose Church have seen its pastor, Dave Roberts, in almost every way:  onstage giving sermons, inside his office giving counseling to those who want it, and even as a flag football player, as he was this year for the church’s annual Turkey Bowl, held the day after Thanksgiving.

But how about on the roof of the church, in a tuxedo?

With his voice auto-tuned, mimicking rapper T-Pain in a G-rated parody of the popular Saturday Night Live digital short, “I’m On A Boat?”

Yes, Montrose’s 50-year-old pastor did just that in 2009 for the church’s promotional video for its high school houseboat trip.

Perhaps it is one of the reasons why Montrose Church has garnered such a large following with teenagers and young adults, becoming a hotbed for hipsters and the like.

“We believe in being an intergenerational church, that it’s not just about having youth programs, it’s about a church that likes children and cares about teenagers and makes them feel at home,” said Roberts, who has been the church’s
pastor for 22 years. “This should be the safest place on earth for them.”

Roberts said the church is devoted to student ministries, which includes trips to San Francisco, Mexico and Bolivia. Its junior high and high school youth groups are popular, as is its summer Vacation Bible School for elementary school children.

To Roberts, kids aren’t the future, they’re the present.

“They have a lot to teach us now, not just someday,” he said.

It may be surprising that Montrose Church is a magnet for so many young adults, considering people in the Foothills struggle with even the idea of going to church.

“[The Church] doesn’t speak into the lives they live. It doesn’t speak into the needs they have,” said Roberts. “It doesn’t make a lot of effort to be relevant in their lives.

“The Church is focused on its own issues, its own paper tigers that that’s all it fights. It fights its own battles and it doesn’t take a longer look at the world, the culture.”

Roberts said Montrose Church is here to change that. He wants to meet people where they are on their life’s journey, and that means being realistic. The Church doesn’t have all the answers, and Roberts wants people to be real as well. “If you can’t go to church and be yourself, where can you go?” he said.

Montrose Church tries to play as active a role in the community as it can to spread its message. There are five sermons each weekend, and many members regularly go to Pasadena to serve the homeless for their “Because You Matter” series.

“The entire church congregation is completely behind what we’re doing in terms of trying to step out beyond the walls of the church and live out the call of missions,” said Young Adults Pastor Chris Sikorowski, who plays a leading role in serving the homeless and the young adult San Francisco trips.

“Young people are at a unique stage in their life where they have independence and they want to serve and want to be active, so the question is how we help young people live an active faith,” Sikorowski said.

While it is active in student ministries, Roberts said the church does not go out of its way to engage in hot button political topics. The church has around a thousand people attend per weekend, so it doesn’t seem to alienate too many.

“My feeling is the answers general lie at a deeper level than politics,” Roberts said. “When you wade into politics, you’re wading into selecting hot button issues to support one way or the other. That’s just a dangerous place to go.”

Roberts admitted he does get pressure from some to speak out on pressing matters, but he said finding balance, in anything, is the key, and exploring something deeper than the colors red and blue.

“Most people feel that it’s not about one political party or the other, it’s about a deeper truth,” he said.

The deep truth about Montrose Church is it is constantly growing, appealing to generations across the board. Sikorowski said it’s mainly because of Roberts.

“It’s rare where you see a pastor with a thousand-person church on a weekend that’s out there and greets every single person and knows people by their name,” he said. “He’s very effective because he’s relational, and he knows people, and he cares.”

With international trips, a week in houseboats, and
a pastor willing to imitate a
hip-hop star on a roof, who
knew going to church could be so fun? For young people in Montrose, they’ve known for some time.