A 2020 Gallup Poll found that 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.
U.S. church membership has fallen below a majority level for the first time, but in New Jersey, Pastor Tim Lucas, founder and lead pastor of Liquid Church, is seeing his congregation expand across the state.
“A new trend called ministry mergers came on our radar in about 2011,” he said.
Liquid Church was started in 2007 by Lucas and his wife Colleen, and it was birthed out of a Sunday school class for twenty-somethings. Even its name is unique.
“Jesus calls himself, the living water,” Lucas said. “So we believe church should be the most refreshing place on the planet. We found that it really resonated with the younger generations.”
In 2011, Lucas said his church was a portable church. “We met in a hotel ballroom for 10 years, in Morristown.” Now, it has seven campuses located in six counties with another one coming soon in Passaic County.
“We were approached (originally) by Mountainside Gospel Church, an older congregation in central New Jersey that had a building and beautiful property, parking et cetera, but they had few people.”
With dwindling attendance and an aging congregation, the 189-year-old Mountainside Gospel Church was on a road to insolvency and closing their doors seemed inevitable.
“That’s a growing trend across the United States,” said Lucas. “Aging congregations that are perhaps rich in history and assets but they don’t have any young people.”
The church offered to merge with Liquid. “We had never been in a permanent church building,” Lucas said. “What if we were better together? It made sense for us to say yes to that (the merger).
“That church exploded beyond anything we could have hoped for,” he said. “We spent a year and a half lovingly restoring the church, upgrading it.”
So what does that stately sanctuary look like now? Decidedly more contemporary.
“Where most people think of choir robes, they come in and say ‘This is like a Coldplay concert,’” said Lucas.
“Instead of stained glass, we put up flat screen TVs. We use a lot of technology with our worship.”
The musicians on “stage” are equipped with state-of-the-art sound gear, expertly mixed by sound engineers. The vocalists sing with gestures and expressions of seasoned contemporary performers.
The church has a concert feel, but the audience isn’t filled with people holding up their cell phones to record it. Instead, crowds seem more filled with the Holy Spirit as they sway and respond to the music.
Recently at Sunday services at the Liquid Church’s Princeton Meadow campus, which just opened last Halloween, the Mercer County Campus Pastor Eryn Mera, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, delivered a stirring sermon in front of a changing backdrop of moving clouds projected on a huge flat screen panel behind her.
Lucas then made an appearance, of sorts, to talk about the church’s new not-for-profit enterprise Clean Water Café in Parsippany, which is staffed by adults ages 21+ with Special Needs — except Lucas wasn’t actually there.
He appeared via a video stream, but the sound quality was perfect and his full-body likeness so precisely proportioned into this context that at first glance, one could be forgiven for believing that he was there in the flesh, roaming the same stage Mera had just occupied.
“LED screens, concerts, smoke machines and all that kind of stuff,” said Lucas. “Yes there’s a certain obviously more contemporary feel to it, but I think it really is that community, that sense like ‘Hey, I can come, I can be part of a family here. People who know me and care for me.”
He believes that un-technological sentiment resonates even with those most steeped in the digital age, “Our Gen Z, Gen X, Millennials.”
The day the new Mercer campus opened, Lucas said more than 500 people came out, among them, college students. Liquid Church – Princeton Meadow is within a 15-minute drive of Princeton University, Rider University and The College of New Jersey.
Lucas sees a need among college students, especially international ones, to find a place they can call home away from home.
“We had four freshmen from Princeton University come to the grand opening service by pooling their money together and taking an Uber!”
That led to an idea for the church’s recent purchase of a shuttle bus that will make the rounds to the local institutions of higher education.
“Our church really has a heart to have a family feel even though we’re a large church with about 5,000 people (statewide across all campuses),” he said. “A lot of people say ‘Hey this really feels like a family, like I’m known.’
“Our hope is that our church can kind of adopt and provide a surrogate family for students while they’re away from home.”
Like all members of the congregation though, students won’t be just showing up on Sundays to worship. The church is actively involved in community service, so Lucas says the students will be involved in serving, but that as part of its mission to make them feel at home, the church will probably feed them while they are at it.
“I remember what it was like in college on Sunday to have a free meal. That was like a miracle.”
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Michael Mancuso may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.