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Published June 19 2010

Nontraditional church plants seeds in heart of Fargo

Posted on Brett Moser’s Facebook profile is the phrase “Religion Sucks.”

Seems like an odd thing for a pastor to say.

Of course, Moser isn’t a traditional pastor, and his River City Church isn’t the stereotypical Sunday-morning, pew-lined, steeple-topped church, either.

Instead of a sanctuary fitted with stained-glass windows, the church on Main Avenue in downtown Fargo has a modern feel with exposed ceilings, flat red and cream-colored paint on the walls and steel-frame chairs set up in rows for the congregation.

And unlike some churches where there’s more of a feeling of coming apart from the world, River City’s worshippers can see the world around them through large windows that reveal orange BNSF train engines rumbling down the tracks to the north and the cars and people of downtown Fargo bustling outside.

“Obviously it’s not a traditional space,” Moser says of the church’s 323 Main Ave. location.

The downtown locale, which used to house a rent-to-own store, is no accident. Moser says he saw the core of the city “as a place for ministry” with a lack of an evangelical presence.

Moser and fellow River City pastor Jake Peterson believe urban areas are places from which cultural influence spreads, and that’s exactly where they want to be.

While the pair of pastors, both 29, aren’t exactly aiming for something fully traditional, Peterson says they aren’t trying to be different simply to be different. As they see it, the gospel message that Jesus taught goes beyond superficial, surface things like what people wear and what the sanctuary looks like – or when people attend it.

Moser and Peterson want to see spiritual life less focused on a weekly Sunday meeting. They want congregants to reach outside the church and into the community.

To that end, River City Church has established groups that meet in other parts of the city and conduct service projects in the community, such as working with international students.

River City, which held its first service Sept. 13 but moved into its current home April 2, is part of Acts 29, a church-planting network that describes itself as both Evangelical and Reformed. River City also has a loose connection with the North American Baptist Conference, though, at this point, they are not a ratified congregation in that denomination.

As the location and décor of the church would indicate, the feel of the service isn’t exactly your shirt-and-tie kind of church vibe.

Casual congregation

Tyler and Elizabeth Burslie just moved to Fargo from Grand Forks and are looking for a church home.

They visited River City Church this past Sunday after checking into it beforehand. They say it seems to be more relaxed and laid back from what they’d learned about it.

“I know Brett, the pastor, from Bible camp,” Elizabeth says. “It might just be a little hipper for us.”

The Burslies are both in their 20s and clad in denim, which means they blend right into the crowd of more than 50 in the church. Most, though not all, of the faces at Sunday’s service are young, and the attire is markedly casual. A man in khakis and a black button-up shirt is the most dressed-up person in the place.

Charlie Hogstad and his wife, Andrea, both 27, were also visiting for the first time.

“Feels like a good fit for us already,” Charlie said before the service even started.

After the service began, Moser, a husband and father of two, stood before the congregation to preach in a tidy but untucked button-up shirt and nerdishly hip eyeglasses. He talked about “missional living,” which is living like a missionary in whatever life circumstance you’ve been placed.

One of the sermon slides projected on the wall behind him read, “Missional living is offensive to religious people, but welcoming to the sinner.”

If Moser seems to have an awful lot against religion for a pastor, it’s probably because he uses the term in a pretty specific manner. He says there’s a sense in which religion is “what I do so I can gain favor with God.”

“I would say favor in the sight of God, we don’t earn that,” Moser says. And to try to earn what he believes has been freely granted through the death of Jesus on the cross is to cheapen the crucifixion.

Keeping tradition

For a church that pushes conventions, River City is quite traditional in other respects.

It teaches through the Scriptures week by week, has communion every service, performs baptisms and sings hymns even if the congregants perform them in a folksy style sans-organ.

Peterson, a husband and father of two, says the existence of the somewhat nontraditional River City Church isn’t a criticism of other churches. Both Peterson and Moser have ministered at other congregations in the area.

Peterson likens it to seeds and how two plants from the same kind of seed will look different in two different environments. And their church, including its downtown roots, reflects the culture in which they minister.

After all, Peterson says they’re not just “trying to be hip and relevant and wear jeans.”

If you go

Readers can reach Forum reporter Shane Mercer at (701) 451-5734