Presbyterian ministers Matt Grimsley (left) and Danny Hindman want to challenge stereotypes about Evangelical Christianity.
Dressed smartly in jeans and sportcoats, Matt Grimsley and Danny Hindman blend in easily with the downtown crowd of office workers, state Capitol staffers and tech startup employees — until you notice their clerical collars.
New to Madison, they’re just the kind of people the city has become known for attracting in recent years. They’re young urban professionals, highly educated and eager to make their mark on the community. But their startup efforts are a bit unusual — they’re attempting to form brand-new churches in a bastion of liberal secularism.
“Madison has a reputation to being a hostile city [for religion],” Hindman says over coffee at Bradbury’s on a recent Friday afternoon. “But on a personal level, people here are very open. It’s been a nice surprise.”
Hindman, 29, attended seminary in St. Louis and became an ordained Presbyterian minister in Madison on March 25. He’s here focusing on campus ministry at UW-Madison, and in his first semester has built a congregation of around 15 students, a mix of Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians and even some non-Christians.
Grimsley, 36, has spent the past 11 years pastoring in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was also a “church plant.”
Church plants are one of the oldest and most effective forms of evangelism, but there’s been an uptick in the practice in the last 20 to 30 years, Grimsley says. Often there’s a “mother church” that provides leadership, guidance and resources for the planter. Other times a new church is backed by a group or organization. Larger churches can split into new congregations. But what Grimsley and Hindman are doing is called a “scratch plant” or a “parachute plant,” which involves moving to a new city and building their churches up from nothing. “Our kind of church plant is unique,” says Grimsley, who holds services at the Longfellow Lofts auditorium. “And it’s probably the most entrepreneurial.”
Hindman and Grimsley don’t stress the more conservative stances of the Presbyterian Church in America, which they belong to. They’re aware of the social trends driving Americans — and particularly millennials — away from the church. And they lament the fact that President Donald Trump has become so closely associated with Evangelical Christianity.
“We both spend a lot of time wiggling out of these stereotypes,” Grimsley says. “We’re trying to curate a safe, welcoming place for people to really explore.”
Hindman agrees that there are “a lot of assumptions when you’re a white Evangelical Christian.” Raised in a religious family, he “did the megachurch thing” but quickly became disillusioned by the worship approach there — rock bands instead of pipe organs, video screens instead of Bibles. Trying to keep Christianity relevant by modernizing the practice has attracted some, but Hindman was looking for something that felt more serious. “It’s almost like post-post-modernism — a return to ancient traditions,” he says of his approach to his faith. “It’s a powerful thing to profess a creed that was written in 325 A.D.”
Grimsley believes that the waning interest in the church can be tied to a fundamental distrust in institutions. He sees an opportunity to connect with people who want to get back to the basics. “I find millennials in particular really want to get back to the roots of things — they like old ways of listening to music, old ways of making coffee.”
And while some think America is going the way of Western Europe, where some churches stand as empty relics, Grimsley has a positive outlook on the future of religion — even if that’s a future with fewer churchgoers.
“I think what we’re doing is putting Christianity where it belongs,” he says, “on the margins of society, not in positions of power.”
People “unchurched” in U.S.: 156 million
Change in amount of religiously unaffiliated Americans: up from 16% in 2007 to 23% in 2014.
Church attendance, by generation: 11% of millennials; 33% of gen X-ers; 35% of boomers; 22% of elders
Average age of pastors: 54
Percentage of pastors younger than 40: 15%