The only decor in the little, white-walled church is a black cross and a text mural in large, black, sans serif letters: “Jesus Loves You Beyond Belief.”
The renovation was barely finished in time for the first official Sunday service. Blue painter’s tape still lines open floor ducts, and the tang of newly refinished floors pricks the nose.
Pastor Brian Pell, 30, looks relieved. He’s been working to plant this new congregation for over a year and today is “the launch,” in church-planting lingo. Outside on this mild September morning, on a slightly overgrown dead-end street near downtown Carrboro, churchgoers file past a card table stacked with donuts—not a flood of people, but not a trickle either. By the time the worship band picks up their guitars, about 80 people have turned up.
The scripture for this Sunday is from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, displayed on television monitors flanking the stage. It’s a passage about how harsh rules on food, drink, and worship are not the point of the gospel. This suits Carrboro, a kombucha-drinking, Pride flag-festooned town of about 21,000 next to Chapel Hill. When a young woman stands to read the day’s text and starts talking about wives submitting to husbands, people trade confused glances. When she gets to “slaves, obey your human masters in everything,” she realizes her mistake: “Wait a minute, I’m reading Colossians 3! Can we just start the service over?”
The congregation bursts into friendly laughter. This is Vintage Church Chapel Hill/Carrboro’s first service, and the goof breaks the tension—a little wink from the Holy Spirit. The slip is also telling. While Christians might prefer to lead with the agreeable parts of the gospel, sooner or later they run into the awkward fact that Jesus and his disciples were not, ultimately, warm and fuzzy or an easy fit in the 21st century.
Pell knows this as well as anyone. He’d planned to preach straight through Colossians, and would have to confront Colossians 3 the very next week.
Carrboro may seem like an odd place to start an evangelical church, with its rainbow crosswalks, informational lectures on hemp at the local grocery co-op, the spoken-word poetry, “anti-oppression talks,” and craft tables at its monthly “Really, Really Free Market.”
But perhaps all this makes Carrboro an ideal mission field for Christians. In our multicultural, secular age, Pell may convince nonbelievers that the best answer to their postmodern problems is a 2,000-year-old faith.
Christians have been planting churches since the beginning, when Paul and the other apostles founded congregations in places like Corinth and Ephesus—cities with enough diversity and unbelief to give Carrboro a run for its money. Evangelical church-planting has grown into a multi-million-dollar enterprise that draws on the latest trends in entrepreneurship, strategies from international missions, and market analysis.
In the church world, as in any other sector, many startups fail. Reliable data is hard to come by, but some experts estimate that at least half of new church plants fail within the first five years. Pell has the support of a large evangelical congregation—Vintage Church in Raleigh—and the backing of one of the most influential church-planting networks in the country, Acts 29. For the past year he has been consumed with training, planning, and recruiting, all while trying to sidestep the minefields of the culture wars and keep a handle on his own self-doubts. He gave The Assembly access to the ups and downs of it all.
Pell’s sermon on launch Sunday was heavy on vulnerability and apologies: “My level of comfort with my sermon is probably on the low end,” he warned at the beginning.
He enumerated the “unhealthy tendencies” in American evangelicalism: an over-attachment to tradition, zealous moral judgment, hypocrisy. He lamented the evangelical inclination “to say we care about marginalized groups when in actuality, we only care about some.” He alluded to pastors he had known who fell prey to the common preacher-man sins: excessive vanity, abuse of power. His earnest brown eyes assured us that this church will be different.
But not too different. Vintage and Acts 29 promote a theology that is unabashedly conservative on topics like sexual identity, gender roles, and abortion. And Acts 29 is committed to a Reformed Protestant theology that says, ultimately, God has already decided who will be saved and damned. A preacher’s personal charisma and entrepreneurial savvy have no power on their own.
But a pastor works alongside the Holy Spirit, and Pell is betting he can do more than burnish evangelical Christianity’s lousy reputation in the bluest corner of the Triangle. He puts it this way: “We want a critical mass that loves Jesus, in this place.”
After dinner one evening last February, I drove to Fount Coffee Bar in Morrisville, a coffee shop with white walls and a stylish text mural not unlike the one in Vintage Church Carrboro (no Jesus, just the slightly Jesusy phrase “Come as you are”).
Frosted globe lights glowed on the cement floor while about 25 people, mostly college-age or in their 20s, sat at long wooden tables and chatted over pastries. Most already attended one of the four Vintage Church campuses across the Triangle, which total between 1,000–1,500 worshippers on an average weekend. They’d come to hear Pell’s pitch about why they should help start a fifth.
After working the room for a half hour, Pell made his way to the front, dressed in khakis, a navy collared shirt, and a burgundy zip-up jacket. He wears his thick brown hair cropped neat and close. “God has been staggeringly clear in drawing us to this place,” he said, glancing at notes on his iPad. He was speaking not just about the church but about himself and his wife, Kaitlyn.
They’d never expected to end up in North Carolina. Brian’s family moved around a lot, landing in the Chicago suburbs by the time he was in high school; Kaitlyn is from central Pennsylvania. They met at Grove City College, a conservative evangelical school an hour north of Pittsburgh.
Kaitlyn’s “really intentional, deeply loving” approach to the LGBTQ community influenced him, and so has his younger brother Aaron, who came out as gay a few years ago, Pell told me. Before that, “I had largely accepted unequivocally the teachings I’d received in various types of conservative evangelical spaces. Even though I still share some of those convictions, much of it lacked nuance and depth.”
He still affirms “the historic perspective on relationships and sexuality—I’m not close to drifting away from it, for a host of reasons.” But he never leads with this issue, and says he welcomes disagreement, because “some of the finest thinkers and most gifted communicators, and people who really love Jesus, disagree with me.”
Pell would rather talk about why so many of us feel as if we’re floating through life without much connection to anyone or any place. “Millennials are an intuitively displaced people, and this wars within us constantly, needing this sense of home,” he said. At a time when many people’s idea of being social is to take their laptop and sit alone at coffee shop instead of sitting alone at home, Pell is on a mission to persuade them that their vague sense of emptiness is not a post-caffeine crash or a sign they need to do more yoga or update their LinkedIn profile. It’s a sign they need fellowship IRL.
Kayla Giberson, a law student at UNC whom Pell convinced to join the plant, said she has felt this loneliness in Chapel Hill ever since she and her husband moved here from Texas a year and a half ago. “People say they’re committed to friendship and acceptance, but the attitude is more, ‘you do you, and I do my own thing,’” she said. “In my experience, people are willing to have surface-level friendships; we can coexist. That’s a beautiful thing, but we’re talking about church as not just coexisting and tolerating each other, but a depth of friendship that takes work and time…being committed to walking through hard things with people.”
After graduation, the Pells moved to Colorado so Brian could study at Denver Seminary. He cut his teeth serving on the staff of churches there, and Kaitlyn became a physician’s assistant. They tried to land jobs back east, but neither particularly wanted to move to the South. After months of dead ends, Pell got a text from Tyler Jones, the lead pastor at Vintage and Acts 29’s vice president for church planting. Jones had heard good things from a colleague. Was Pell interested in coming to Raleigh?
The Pells rented an apartment in Cary when they arrived in 2020, but found themselves “drifting to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro-Durham side of the Triangle,” Brian said. “Our preferred cultural landscape tends to be fairly liberal, ideologically. Our preference is to be on the conservative edge of a liberal space, as opposed to the reverse.” When the plan for a Carrboro church plant became more concrete, they bought a house in Chapel Hill.
On that winter night at the Morrisville coffee shop, which Pell and his staff called “vision night,” he urged the crowd to think hard about why God had put them where they live—and whether, maybe, He was issuing new instructions. Occasionally Pell slipped into heartfelt theologizing custom-made for an academic town. “We believe that God is omnirational, able to sustain an infinite synthesis of the good and the true in the work he does,” he explained.
Pell often uses long words and convoluted phrases, but never comes off as pretentious—it just seems like he never has quite enough syllables to contain his enthusiasm. An older pastor once pointed out that “I’m prone to something like a word salad,” he later told me.
He hammered on theology of place. Christians should not think of the town or neighborhood where they live as an accident or a commodity: “The specific place where we live is directly connected to how we get to know the creator of the universe.” He launched into sales pitch for the Chapel Hill area, a place supposedly tied with Cambridge, Massachusetts for the highest number of earned doctorates per capita (I could not confirm this oft-quoted statistic); a place lush with more than 100 different species of trees (“What?!” exclaimed someone in the crowd); a place that has its problems too, like a surprisingly high proportion of children living with food insecurity.
The area is “decidedly and deliberately post-Christian” and “prides itself on its progressive humanist instincts,” Pell said. “And I say these things with delight.”
He told the crowd the same thing he told me: “I love having these conversations.” It is disorienting, in our polarized cultural moment, to meet someone who seems to genuinely like being an ideological minority—let alone someone who is so optimistic (or naïve) as to see it as a selling point.
By spring, Pell and his colleagues had arranged to rent the Carrboro building, which two other small congregations share. By summer, they were meeting occasionally for worship in the Pells’ home, with a few other Vintage members who had moved closer.
In early May, Marissa Greene became one of them. “I don’t know when exactly I fully committed to this thing, that I’m going to Chapel Hill,” said Greene, who grew up in Cary and had been working as director of operations at Vintage since 2020. “I started weighing the options—why I would do it, why I wouldn’t—and I was like, there’s not a reason I shouldn’t go. The Lord’s made everything super clear.”
The goal, of course, is for a core group of Vintage transplants to grow into a congregation by adding local residents. Carrboro and Chapel Hill already have their share of established churches, though few are evangelical. Starting a new church requires a bit of diplomacy, lest a new pastor be accused of “sheep stealing” or simply being clueless about the local culture.
When a new church opens its doors, “some pastors can feel threatened,” said Jay Thomas, who pastors Chapel Hill Bible Church. But Thomas recalled that the last time a new evangelical congregation started in town, “we actually grew.” “Different churches draw different types of people,” he said, “and the church-planting world is very aware of that.”
Pell connected with Michael Cousin, the minister of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, who wanted to convey the perspective of Carrboro’s Black residents who feel pushed out by rising home prices and marginalized in political discussions. Carrboro is about 16 percent Black, while Chapel Hill is about 10 percent. “I said, my community is disappearing,” he told me.
Cousin said that he would warn any church planter, “If you’re saying, ‘we’ve got to save those persons,’ then what are you saying about those churches already there? What have they been doing? Before you go in, understand the place, learn the place.”
Not everyone in Carrboro trusts a bunch of evangelicals to take that on. “That first week, we put up signs to say we’ll be holding church, and they were covered up with posters saying things I won’t repeat. The main theme was that churches are homophobic and racist,” said Kayla Giberson. “It was pretty hateful. The message was, ‘you’re not welcome here.’” But she added that “ideally, we can show people that what you’ve experienced in the past isn’t what we’re trying to do. Carrboro is a tough fit in terms of people’s perceptions, but it’s a good fit as an opportunity to let people change what they think about church.”
Naveen Pillai, who was born in India, is one of a few non-white people in the core group that launched the Carrboro campus of Vintage Church. He served on a diversity committee at the Raleigh campus and said that leaders there have been saying, “‘Let’s look at the people around us and wonder why the church isn’t comprised of them.’ That’s a solid and complex idea, but not easy to solve for a 20-year-old church that’s been a certain way for all that time.”
A new campus offers more opportunities to experiment. Pillai and Pell are kicking around alternative ideas for social gatherings to complement traditional small-group Bible studies. “A more helpful question is, ‘can we make this church a comfortable place for people who live here,’ rather than ‘can we look like them,’” said Pillai. “How do you make people who might not like Christianity feel like they belong?”
The Eye of A Needle
American evangelicals have a long history of obsessing over membership numbers and baptism rates. But Vintage Church’s approach is a sign that perhaps some have learned that bigger is not always better.
When Vintage, founded in 2002, began to outgrow a single building and attract people from a wider catchment area, the answer was not to build a huge new building in Raleigh, but to plant new congregations.
Many of the fastest growing churches in America are “multi-site” (including The Summit Church, also based in Raleigh, which I wrote about earlier this year). A recent survey by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability suggests that this franchise-like model has become the most common way that new evangelical congregations form in North America. The 2016 book Planting Missional Churches counted more than 8,000 multi-site churches in the country, serving more than five million worshippers.
“With this structure, we alleviate almost all the backend burden for local churches, as we share resources,” said Tyler Jones, Vintage’s founding pastor. “One of the difficulties in planting a church is that you might have a really good leader, but that person might not be gifted administratively. We have the local people free to do the things they’re called to do, but they don’t have to worry so much about the budgeting and finance process.”
Vintage will support the lion’s share of Pell’s expenses for the first years, but after three years “we would like to see a local church bringing in the amount of money they’re spending,” Jones said.
The international church-planting network, Acts 29, is also supporting Pell with mentoring, an intensive training and assessment process, connections to a network of fellow planters, and the option of financial support if he needs it. If aspiring church-planters “pass the initial assessment and then become candidates,” the network’s staff reviews references and performs a behavior and temperament evaluation, said Dave Bruskas, Acts 29’s vice president for U.S. Regions. (The Book of Acts details the first missions of Jesus’s apostles in 28 chapters; Acts 29 seeks to write the “next chapter” by helping pastors start new congregations.)
Church-planting networks are much like startup accelerators or incubators, connecting young pastors with mentors and donors, honing their pitches, weeding out the guys who are in it mainly for ego-gratification. “It’s not like we wave a wand and based on your aspirations you become an effective planter. We want to see a trajectory,” Bruskas said. “We say, ‘tell me about two or three people by name, and how you influenced them to think about Jesus.’ You want to hear the candidate say, ‘man, so many come to mind, let me think on that.’”
Candidates who make it through the training and vetting process are eligible for a $25,000 interest-free loan, and another $25,000 when their congregation hits 100 members. Acts 29 receives about half of its annual budget ($9 million in 2022) from member churches like Vintage, which commit to donate 2 percent of their gifts and offerings; the other half comes from individual donors.
Church-planting networks may be for the 21st century what traditional Christian denominations were to the 19th and 20th centuries: engines of innovation, crucibles of struggle over how to defend orthodox faith in the modern world, and shorthand for religious and cultural identity. Vintage Church is technically nondenominational, but if you tell any reasonably informed evangelical that the church is affiliated with Acts 29, you’ll get a knowing nod.
The pastor probably preaches in jeans or khakis (definitely no pleats), a mic headset and a well-fitted but untucked collared shirt. The generally cool vibe is supposed to seem effortless, but reflects shrewd backstage planning. His sermons likely assume a Reformed theology, big on God’s awesome power and depraved humans’ puny free will. There’s plenty of talk about sin, but these churches emphasize God’s “wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love” rather than the flames of hell, in the words of the 18th-century Reformed theologian Jonathan Edwards.
In Acts 29 churches, only heterosexual sex within marriage is allowed, and only men can pastor—but there are lots of surprisingly empowered women making the place work. When the network began in 1998, the aim was to find ways to win converts to the gospel without getting too entangled in the culture wars (which means that any self-respecting fundamentalist will warn you that Acts 29 is “woke”).
About 800 churches worldwide are affiliated with Acts 29 today, 600 of them in North America. The network is not the largest church-planting operation in the country, but it wields enormous influence because of its unusually high success rate. Even in the wake of the pandemic, roughly 90 percent of the churches Acts 29 has backed still exist and have at least 40 adults attending regularly, Bruskas told me.
The network also has a kind of star power, with links to big personalities in American evangelicalism. These charismatic Christian entrepreneurs inspired many young pastors like Pell, but several prominent falls from grace offer a cautionary lesson.
Mark Driscoll, a magnetic Seattle preacher who helped found Acts 29, looms the largest. Driscoll was known for delivering sermons in a black skateboarder’s jacket and skull t-shirt; his multi-site church, Mars Hill Church, grew like gangbusters. But he provoked continual controversy with R-rated sermons on masturbation and harangues that mainstream culture had transformed Jesus into a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy.” In 2014, he was compelled to resign amid allegations of abusive leadership.
Other Acts 29 leaders have stumbled too: Steve Timmis, a British pastor who became CEO of Acts 29 in 2014 and helped build the network’s global presence, was forced to step down in 2020 after allegations of bullying and abusive leadership. Matt Chandler, Acts 29’s president and pastor of The Village Church in Texas, seemed like one of evangelicalism’s golden boys until this summer, when his church announced that he would take a leave of absence and “step aside from Acts 29 speaking engagements” because of a non-romantic but “overly familiar,” “unguarded and unwise” relationship with a woman on social media.
Driscoll, in particular, is a case of evangelicalism’s entrepreneurial impulse run amok. His macho, middle-finger-to-the-prim-Bible-Belt brand was wildly successful, especially among young men, but he committed to it so zealously that the brand conquered him.
Mars Hill provided most of Acts 29’s funding for many years, but the network has distanced itself from him and tried to shed the hyper-masculine, facial hair-forward image of its early days. “When I call our planters, I hear all the time, ‘I’m here because of Driscoll,’ but in the same breath, ‘I want to be nothing like Mark Driscoll. I’m so grateful for him, he motivated me to do what I’m doing today, but I don’t want to be anything like him,’” said Bruskas.
Pell is a poster boy of the reboot: clean-shaven and slightly nerdy, more of a diplomat than a culture warrior, more interested in buying you coffee and hearing about your feelings than arguing about gender roles. “The concept to which I’m inviting people—at least in my head—it’s so pure. It’s a spiritual thing,” he said. “But any time I have to try to communicate it, it feels like I’m falling short of what it is. In my ideal world, the Holy Spirit would just do that in people’s hearts and minds, without me needing to say anything,” he said.
In the wake of so many charismatic megachurch pastors’ self-destructive abuse of power, young pastors have good reason to wonder whether every mentor will eventually disappoint them. They have good reason to fear success. “You’re always going to have pastors who desire a big church—part of that is our sinful nature,” said Mark Hallock, pastor of Calvary Church in Englewood, Colorado, who mentored Pell. “We want the platform, the influence. But there is a growing sense among younger pastors that, ‘I don’t want to be that. I want Jesus to be the hero, not me.’”
It might be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for an evangelical pastor to grow a thriving church without becoming a power-hungry egomaniac. Acts 29 “definitely went through a bad time where a lot of young men were assessing other young men, and it was a swagger contest,” said Tyler Jones, the lead pastor at Vintage. “But it has changed for the good.”
“It’s a more risk-averse generation that’s coming up. They want to be safer,” Bruskas said. At the same time, for a new church to survive “you’ve got to get to a numerical threshold. If it’s a business, it’s about volume—how many people come, how many people give, that determines your program.”
Smaller, more locally oriented churches have become a fashionable goal. Still, Bruskas said, “nobody really launches a church plant for it to be small—not just because they want to be validated by having a larger church, but because they want to see their community radically changed.”
A Reluctant Salesman
In late August, the Pells flew to Dallas for their official Acts 29 assessment. Brian had been working almost full time on the plant for more than a year, so they hoped the assessment would be more of a blessing than a first vote of confidence.
Married church planters bring along their wives, since “the spouse is so profoundly impacted by taking on the ambitions of a church plant,” said Bruskas. “We want to ask how she feels about it.” (Being a pastor’s wife in evangelical churches is often a full-time, if unpaid, job.) Seven other husband-and-wife teams from around the country were also in town for their assessments.
After checking into their hotel, the Pells made their way to The Village Church. It was shortly before the summer scandal that compelled its pastor, Matt Chandler, to step away from Acts 29 activities. The couple had two days of grueling interviews ahead, a preaching audition in front of a group of assessors, and a quiz on Bible knowledge.
Kaitlyn wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
She grew up in a conservative church in Pennsylvania, but rejects what she calls “cultural Christianity,” the substitution of a particular brand of American conservatism for gospel values. “I was given other passions—a heart for people in my community and for medicine,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be the wife who stays at home, cooks and cleans, and takes care of the patriarchy.”
“I went into the assessment feeling like I’m ready to fight somebody. I was mentally prepared to make sure they knew I was not a robot, that I have other passions, other things on my heart. But they did not question any of those things.”
Due with their first child in January, she also received of a lot of “maternal advice” from the other wives. “They said, don’t get wrapped up in the title of a pastor’s wife. Your primary job is to love your family well, which I do agree with.”
The assessors “asked a lot of pointed questions about our marriage, our friendship, the family dynamic. Brian and I were super honest,” she said. When the Pells had to rate Brian’s church-planting skills, they agreed that he struggles most with the demand to be an entrepreneur. Selling his product, pitching the church plant to potential members, is his “least favorite” part of church planting, he said.
In the Pells’ home, it’s actually Kaitlyn who has the entrepreneur bug; after maternity leave, she’s planning to transition from her work as a physician’s assistant to starting her own business in medical aesthetics.
But maybe the last thing an evangelical church needs right now is a pastor who sees himself primarily as a salesman. At the end of their time in Texas, the assessors gave Brian the second-highest rating in their system: a green light, with the suggestion that he read a couple of recommended books and set up coaching sessions with another Acts 29 pastor. The launch went ahead.
The Season of Advent
In their mission statement, in sermons, in conversations with reporters, Vintage staff call their church a place for “doubters, seekers and followers.” Whatever a Carrboro liberal’s stereotype of the red-faced, Bible-waving evangelist might be, Vintage is going for the opposite.
The church projects a special awareness of those who have had negative experiences with Christianity, who have seen friends and family mistreated by people who claimed the mantle of the gospel. Before I visited the main campus in downtown Raleigh for the first time, another local pastor described Vintage’s music to me as “slightly emo.”
Ty Perry, the worship leader at the new campus, has a slight build, shaggy dark hair, and an arm full of tattoos ranging from a mountain on his shoulder representing Mount Sinai to flowers symbolizing trauma suffered by family members. “A lot of people are carrying church hurt, so we’re willing to play some of these songs of brokenness and lament,” said Perry. “Sometimes as a culture, contemporary Christian music can overlook that, and focus on songs of victory and joy. We do still have that, but we want to be able to care for the culture of people coming in.”
Although the jargon of entrepreneurship and “vision-casting” has saturated the church-planting world, the Vintage staff come across as anti-salesmen, desperate to correct for people’s fear of old-fashioned evangelism or moral judgment. “As a Christ follower, I’m called to love the people around me,” Perry said. “I don’t see that as just general positivity to everyone in the world, but literally, who is next to you? Who is in the house beside you, and what are they going through?”
But it takes more than a tender heart to win a convert—to convince someone that faith in Jesus is not just a lifestyle choice, but the way to salvation. People in the neighborhood seem unfazed, but not necessarily interested, either.
Steven Clapp, 70, has spent the last 50 years living a few doors down the street from the church building that Vintage is renting. On launch Sunday he stood outside the piles of cast-off furniture, tarps, ancient brown Christmas trees, and other miscellaneous objects in his front yard, surveying the neighborhood. He wore a black Uncle Maddio’s Pizza baseball cap, faded black pants and shirt, a large gold-colored watch and several beaded bracelets. He introduced himself as “the grandpa of the street” and recalled that back in the 1970s, when a Pentecostal congregation used the church, “one of my neighbors would do LSD and then go to that church of holy rollers. The neighborhood was funky.”
I asked what Clapp thought about Christian evangelists trying to convert him. “Christ, the Buddha and Rumi, the whirling dervishes—they go to a deeper level. They’re not so overly contorted, so owned by men,” he said. His Carrboro was not bracing to fend off this pack of fresh-faced evangelicals, but prepared to simply absorb them into the modern morass of multi-faith you-do-you.
There is, however, a decent chance that Pell is making the right bet. By the start of the Christmas season, weekly attendance was hovering around a respectable 60. Even in Carrboro, people are hungry: not just for friendship and community, but for someone to point out, with kindness, that they might be worshiping the wrong things.
Molly Worthen is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes on religion, politics, and higher education for the New York Times and has contributed to the New Yorker, Slate, the American Prospect, Foreign Policy, and other publications.