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Anna G. Larson, Published June 30 2013

With its relaxed atmosphere, Prairie Heights Community Church gains popularity

Fargo - Dressed in jeans and a cream and black bowling shirt, the Rev. Jon Hauser lets out a spirited “woo” with a fist pump as he listens to the church service’s opening music in Room 203 of the Fargodome.

Hauser, called “Jon” by his congregation, is not a typical pastor, and services at his rapidly growing church are not of the sit-down-and-be-quiet variety.

Prairie Heights Community Church, an affiliate of the Church of the Nazarene, gathers in the Fargodome each Sunday. It takes 120 people to set up and tear down the nine areas used for the 65-minute worship services and the church’s groups.

There are no pews, no stained glass, no lectern, no hymn list and no religious paintings. Instead, large screens span the front of the main worship room, and the Prairie Heights Band performs during the service. Colorful strips of fabric decorate the stage backdrop, and guests sit on chairs arranged in rows. The only “churchy” item in the space is a large wooden cross on stage.

“A lot of people, when they think church, they think steeples, they think boring, they think stained glass,” Hauser says. “Some people enjoy it, and that’s awesome, but there are a lot of folks … that’s just not where they’re at.”

Beth Nelson, 28, of Fargo, grew up in a traditional church that “didn’t click” with her. She now attends PHCC.

“I remember going, and we were basically told that if you only come on Easter and Christmas, you need to get on the bandwagon. I was like forget this, you’re not going to tell me I have to go to church,” she says. “I was offended.”

Five years ago, she went to a PHCC service with her brother’s friend, and while it took time, Beth says she found a church home at Prairie Heights. She admits it was “a little strange at first” because of the loud band, clapping and casual attire, but now she’s the director of connections at the church and works to get people involved.

“On a Sunday morning, there’s this feeling that I can’t describe. Something comes alive,” she says.

PHCC held its first official service in 2001 at the Doublewood Inn here, with 207 people in attendance. The church’s congregation has grown to 2,200 people.

Hauser, a North Dakota native, says people are drawn to the church for its relaxed atmosphere and “big on people” philosophy.

“The people aren’t there for the building,” he says. “The building is meant to be a tool to help you expand and touch lives of people.”

Although the church doesn’t have a traditional church building, the ministry center in West Fargo houses the church staff’s offices and meeting rooms. PHCC will continue hosting services at the Fargodome but will have a second worship location by the ministry center in 2015.

A new dream

In 1997, Hauser didn’t know that he’d be ministering 2,200 people. The church was just an idea in his head. He was a successful engineer living with his family in Minneapolis. As he says, they were living the American dream.

That year, Hauser and his family drove through Fargo on their way to Bismarck, and he pointed to the land where the ministry center now sits. He remarked to his wife, Teri, that it’d be fun to start a church there someday.

A year later, a pastor friend of Hauser’s called him to see if he’d consider starting a church in Fargo.

The call put in motion efforts to start PHCC. The Hausers went through an assessment process that examined their marriage and finances. Jon Hauser says he “almost” hoped they wouldn’t pass because he didn’t want to leave his American dream in Minneapolis. Instead, they passed the evaluation and were green-lighted to open the church.

“It really started with some confidence that other people saw in me,” Jon Hauser says.

Before the couple moved to Fargo, they’d come for the weekend and network with people, asking them what a church could do to encourage attendance. People said they didn’t attend church because it was boring, their kids didn’t like going, they didn’t want to dress up or they felt like the church just wanted their money.

“We realized it had nothing to do with what Christ taught. It had everything to do with the culture of churches in America,” Jon Hauser says.

A church for the Mikes

After analyzing their feedback, the Hausers hosted a small breakfast at the Expressway Inn & Suites and pitched their idea of starting a church. Less than nine people were in attendance.

“We just knew there were a lot of people who were disengaged in this community,” Hauser says.

He met one of those people a few nights before the breakfast. An intoxicated man named Mike chatted with him in the hallway. Mike had just gotten paid and was at the hotel to drink with friends. Mike told Hauser about his 6-month-old baby and wife who were going to pick him up later.

Hauser stayed with Mike until his wife got to the hotel. As he watched Mike’s wife drive away, he believed that he’d met Mike for a reason.

“I felt very strongly that God was saying, ‘Jon, I want you to start a church for Mike. There aren’t a lot of churches where Mike will fit,’ ” Hauser says.

Acceptance is a major tenet at PHCC, he says.

“I think people – with tattoos, earrings, colored hair, or cross dressers, you name it – they are loved unconditionally, and they can sense that the minute they get out of their car at the dome,” he says.

PHCC member Steve Stine, 42, of Fargo, says he hasn’t always been religious and describes himself as a “long-haired, tattooed, rock-and-roll guy.” Steve, a local musician, has attended the church with his family since 2010.

“They don’t look at me any different. They don’t judge me. They make you feel welcome, and it feels like home,” he says.

Michael Solberg, 40, of Fargo, has attended the church for seven years with his wife and their three children. He says Prairie Heights resonates with his family because its mission and messages are relevant to their lives. The church’s latest message series features clips from the movie “The Princess Bride.”

“I think we all are hungry for learning how to live better and healthier and happier lives,” Michael says. “I think that Prairie Heights has a great way of connecting biblical truths to really relevant topics today on how to live a better life.”

The church is named after Habakkuk verse 3:19, which Hauser interprets to mean that “even though we live in the prairie, when we partner with God, we can experience life when times are good and times are bad.”

Hauser knew he’d chosen the right name for the church when the city gave him the ministry center’s address: 319 32nd Ave. E.

“It all came full circle,” he says. “If we have love and compassion to serve people, but we don’t have a building… we’ve got it.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525