Norwalk church bucks national trends, sees growth in change
NORWALK — Mike McAvey came to Norwalk searching.
McAvey, 29, had been raised Catholic but felt unfulfilled with the subdued nature of the Masses. He fell away from his faith as an adult.
But by the time he moved from Virginia to Norwalk, in 2016, he felt a spiritual pull back religion, in part inspired by new churches with locations popping up nationwide, and internationally, such as Hillsong and Elevation, where Christian rock replaced solemn hymns, congregations were younger and more diverse than at most traditional places of worship, and pastors put on a rousing show stressing spirituality and community.
“I had seen those churches kind of from afar and I wanted to be a part of that. But I didn’t live in an area where there was one of those,” McAvey said, of his former home.
In Norwalk, he Googled several churches before stumbling upon Broad River Church. In October of that year, he attended his first “gathering” — a term the church feels is more participative — and immediately felt at home.
“It just suited me,” McAvey said. “Kevin (Pastor Kevin Mullins) was super chill and it seemed like it was fun. So I went that first Sunday and I don’t think I’ve missed two weeks since.”
Mullins and his wife, Jacinta, have been lead pastors of the non-denominational Broad River Church since 2011, though it was then called the Church of the Good Shepherd, a Lutheran church with a congregation of just 13 people.
They’ve since set out to modernize the church and, especially in the past 18 months, have overseen a large-scale face-lift.
Gone are the pews in the small sanctuary in the church’s New Canaan Avenue space. In their place are rows are chairs, which can be moved depending on the number of people in attendance or the type of worship event. On the stage — which is backed by a gray stone wall bedecked with a large cross illuminated in blue neon light — are a drum kit, a piano, keyboard and several microphone stand, where the full band performs worship music.
“It’s not too much of a rock n’ roll show. But we do have lights,” Mullins said.
Under the leadership of the Mullins and his wife, Broad River has also begun to provide Spanish translation of all gatherings, in an effort to draw a more diverse crowd that better represents Norwalk’s demographics.
And, crucially, despite declining church-going populations, especially among millennials, and many churches being forced to make existential decisions, Broad River has roughly doubled in size over the last six months and has grown exponentially in the years since the Mullins’ took over. A second Sunday gathering was recently added and last week, between the two services, Mullins estimated just shy of 200 attendees.
It’s been a gradual climb out of near obscurity for Mullins and his congregation, and one that started at the beginning of his tenure at the church.
“From the beginning, I talked to the existing congregation about making changes. I was aware that denominational churches all over the country were going out of business,” said Mullins, who moved to Connecticut with his family from Tennessee in 2007. “I thought, at some point we have to say, ‘What’s going to change?’ It’s a little bit rigid to say, ‘This is the way we do things.’ We really want to flip the switch and say, ‘How do we minister to people in Norwalk in 2019?’”
In terms of ideology, Mullins said the church’s teaching is based around the Apostle’s Creed, with four major hopes for each member of the congregation: that they come to know God, that they find freedom, that they discover purpose and that they make a difference.
“We believe the happiest people are as humans is when they’re connected in service to others. We want to demonstrate love,” Mullins said.
Broad River is not the only church in town experimenting with new ways to attract a crowd or expanding their services, even as other churches falter.
Hillsong, the Australia-based mega church with a list of celebrity congregants that includes Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, began renting out the Wall Street Theater on Sundays for services and attracts a mostly young, highly diverse crowd from Fairfield County and beyond. And the Roman Catholic St. Mathew Church will soon celebrate the ground breaking of its brand new, state-of-the-art recreation center.
But even as Broad River continues to grow — in 2020, there’s a plan to rent out space for services in South Norwalk — Mullins hopes to maintain the same community-oriented feel.
According to Sara Garcia, who came with her husband and children to the church three years ago and is now an elder and a member of the church council, gatherings still feel like a family affair.
“One of the things I really love is that, although we are a growing church, still when you walk in and out you feel a family environment. Everybody’s really friendly, everybody’s very welcoming and warm,” Garcia said.
According to Mullins, on a typical Sunday, congregants lingering after the 9 a.m. service are often met with hugs by those arriving for the 10:30 a.m. service in the lobby area, where couches and tables give the room a cafe feel. At Broad River, lingering is encouraged.
“Our world tends more and more toward isolationism. This is a place where people can counteract that,” Mullins said. “This space is about people being together.”
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