One of the fastest-growing churches in the United States meets in Fridley.
Substance Church holds two worship services at every week. About 400 people crowded into the high school auditorium on Sunday for a service heavy on music and message. The church claims a total membership of more than 2,000 and meets at a variety of locations, including Fridley High, Northwestern College and the church’s operations center in Roseville.
Outreach magazine ranked Substance as the 21st-fastest-growing church in the country, and Substance refers to itself as one of the fastest growing in the state. It began with a congregation of about 40 people meeting near the University of Minnesota campus, and moved to the northern suburbs in 2008.
One key to its rapid growth is evident in the enthusiasm of its churchgoers.
“I’ve been a Christian all my life,” said Ingrid Melander of Anoka, “and I have never been excited to get up in the morning and go to church, but here I am. I can’t really explain it except that it’s a community. They truly want to be the hands and feet of God.”
Melander swayed along with the music during Sunday’s service and opened her Bible to check out the verses that Pastor Peter Haas referenced in his sermon. She greeted those around her before and after the service with hugs and a smile.
At this particular service, Haas spoke about “toxic sexuality.” It was one in a series of sermons about toxic sins. He gave the congregation several minutes’ warning about his topic, giving parents with small children a chance to take advantage of “alternate programming” available that day.
Then he launched into a 45-minute message that was alternately spirited and humorous and biblically based. Using a mix of scriptural references, scientific research and old-fashioned common sense, he warned against the risks of premarital sex and pornography. He finished by assuring his listeners that God could help them overcome those temptations and keep sex in its proper place.
“It’s like fire,” he said. “It’s great when it’s in a fireplace!”
Rock and hip hop music were the bookends to the sermon, provided by a seven-member band. Pastor Nick Foulks rapped at times and led prayer at others. A collection was taken just before the worship service concluded.
And then church started. That’s Substance’s motto, anyway: that church begins after the service, with time for coffee and conversation, as well as a large selection of small groups and other worship opportunities throughout the week.
It’s the small groups and service opportunities that attract many of Substance’s members. Ingrid Melander’s cousin, Micah Melander, for instance, lives in East St. Paul but has been attending services in Fridley since they began. The church’s services at Northwestern College are closer, he said, but Fridley “feels like home.”
A Substance group to which Melander belonged decided the church should do something of service to show its appreciation to the Fridley High School neighborhood, which sees an influx of hundreds of cars every Sunday morning as people migrate there to attend worship services at 9 and 11 a.m.
“We wanted to do something that would bless the people of Fridley,” Melander said.
The group organized a community party at in July 2009 and then again in August 2010. About 200 people showed up for each of the picnics, which featured free food and entertainment, plus bounce houses, face painting and other fun stuff for the kids.
Foulks also was attracted to the energy and message delivered by Haas. He was a student at the University of Minnesota when he learned about Substance, which was meeting near the university at the time. He and his wife, Shelley, decided to attend a service.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “I really got challenged to go for God.”
Go for God he did, dropping his political science major and enrolling at Northwestern in ministry. He became an intern with Substance and worked directly with Haas. (Haas founded the church with this wife, Carolyn, in 2004 after serving a church in Wisconsin.)
Now, five years later, Foulks is one of two assistant pastors and serves as the youth pastor and campus pastor for the Fridley services.
Foulks has been a part of Substance Church’s whirlwind of growth. The church is in the beginning stages of raising money for a worship center of its own. Foulks said it was too soon to say where that building might be located, but he said the church probably would stay in the northern suburbs.
Substance is known in mega-church circles as particularly youthful, and those gathered in Fridley for worship on Sunday provided some proof of that reputation. Almost all of those attending seemed to be in their 20s or 30s. Couples with infants and other small children were abundant. A few gray-headed folks mingled in, but the audience definitely skewed youthful.
Indeed, the church seems to go out of its way to play up the new and downplay tradition or history—from the messages on its snazzy website to the mentions of “praising God, not some tradition” during a prayer at the worship service.
The message seems to get through.
“I had been out of church for a long time,” Micah Melander said. “A friend suggested it, so I went to Substance. I really appreciated Pastor Peter and his messages. I just came to listen but didn’t get involved for a long time. But the messages spoke to me and were relevant and biblical.”
If preaching drew him to Substance, then meeting people kept him there. He has made many friends, including some men he now shares a house with. And he met his future wife.
“We were engaged just two weeks ago,” he said with a big smile.