Freelance photographer Stephanie J. Johnson started attending Calvary Church in 2012 after seeing the profound difference the large Assemblies of God church made in her mother’s life. But Johnson, 28, has stayed around because of the discipleship-oriented outreach to young adults at the Dover, Delaware, church.
When she started attending, only half a dozen came to the young adults’ midweek gatherings. Still, the exchanges were heartfelt and open, which helped Johnson develop her faith. But when Ryan G. Coon, 35, then connections and discipleship pastor, stepped in to take a more active leadership role in 2017, turnouts mushroomed to as many as 45.
“A lot of us young adults were in a huge transitional moment,” says Johnson, one of eight volunteers who helps lead meetings. “He pointed us in the right way. His emphasis was fairly simple: love one another and be like the disciples.”
Coon says the reason for the group’s growth is a highly relational emphasis. It’s an approach he has employed to multiply the number of churchwide home groups from 10 to 50 over the past three years.
The reason for putting more emphasis on young adults was not to boost the church’s image as one that appealed to millennials. Calvary wanted to make more disciples, says Coon, who recently became lead pastor — replacing his father, Roland, who served in the pulpit for 40 years.
“We decided we needed to get together, grow together, and go together,” Coon says. “We found out they wanted to go deeper in Christ and grow in their understanding of faith.”
Coon gradually released the reigns, encouraging congregants to take turns leading Bible study. He says that follows the example Jesus set with His disciples of modeling, mentoring, and then releasing them into leadership.
It took two years of developing leaders. The process included building a stronger community through fellowship and digging into the Bible, asking tough questions, and group discussion rather than leader lectures.
Among the discipleship studies the pastor used was 4 Chair Discipling: What Jesus Calls Us to Do by Dann Spader. Young adult lay leader Carlos E. Velez, 25, says this material and other studies Coon led helped develop him into a disciple.
“Before I was a churchgoer, but not a fully committed follower of Christ,” says Velez, who works in a chemical manufacturer’s laboratory. “Serving God is a lifestyle. The Spirit opens your eyes more every day about things you need to give up.”
Ironically, millennials have a reputation for shunning large churches — Calvary averages 1,500 in Sunday attendance. But Velez stays because of the church’s community-oriented feel.
“I love my church within the church,” Velez says.
Johnson says a host of volunteers help make sure newcomers aren’t flying under the radar.
“We’re always encouraging young adults to get connected,” she says. “It’s not enough to just make connections. True connections come from relationships.”