Two Suburban Churches Planting Campuses in Minneapolis’ “Small Town”

Few Churches Reach Minneapolis’ Urban North Loop Community

If 5,000 people lived in one small Minnesota town and only one church was in the area, it is likely church planters would descend on that town at an alarming rate. That town exist. It’s not in the rural setting you might have imagined, but right in the heart of downtown Minneapolis, in what is called the North Loop; the 10 by 10 block area formerly known as the Warehouse district of Minneapolis.  According to Minneapolis Downtown Council 4,000-5,500 people live in the North Loop and 39,000 people live downtown Minneapolis.

Substance Downtown Launch night
Substance Church’s Downtown Minneapolis Preview Night


The North Loop is bustling with walkable restaurants, bars, coffee shops, music venues, and yet according to the North Loop Neighborhood directory, only one church is listed as a house of worship in the confines of this community, Corner Church lead by Scott Woller. Woller helped Transform Minnesota host a bike tour of the North Loop for 15 possible church planters last summer.

For the past 10 years while the Warehouse district’s former industrial vibe was transformed into a high-density sea of expensive, trendy lofts and condos, Woller says Corner Church and its affiliated Corner Coffee shop have been the only Christian faith community to set-up church in the North Loop.

“There’s a lot of spiritually-minded people here, but not a lot of churches,” said Woller. “We need people planting churches in these historically industrial areas.”


Two Suburban Churches Launch Minneapolis Campuses
Substance Downtown Launch night 2
Substance Church’s Downtown Minneapolis Preview Night


This fall two well-known mega-churches in the Twin Cities are launching campuses in or near the North Loop. River Valley Church is opening their Minneapolis campus on September 13, at the restaurant/bar The Pour House, which is a few blocks southeast of the North Loop area. One mile away, Substance Church will launch their campus on October 4 in the heart of the North Loop at the Aria Venue.

River Valley PourHouse
River Valley’s Downtown Minneapolis Preview Night


“The need is huge, the population density in the North Loop is astronomical,” said Drew Shepp, Substance Church’s downtown campus co-pastor. “There’s no one church that’s going to solve it, it has to be the local church, the kingdom of God that all partners together.”

“We feel like there is a movement, and it’s not something we’ve started or something we’re taking over, it feels like God’s been speaking to the church for a while now, ‘My heart is in the city,’ and there’s a lot God wants to do there. A lot of churches are waking up to that, we love that,” said Justin Greiman, who will co-pastor Substance’s downtown campus along with Shepp.

Substance Church and River Valley pastors say there is no competition as they launch campuses within one month of each other; they are praying for each other, and are championing the efforts of the local church as both try to reach lost people.

“Our goal is not to take people from other Bible-believing churches. We are going to reach the people who need Jesus, who don’t know him yet and need a home church,” said Kirk Graham, the campus pastor for River Valley’s Minneapolis campus.


River Valley Church

River Valley’s has seen growth in the number of small groups growing out of downtown Minneapolis. They started a young adult ministry called 20+ that met quarterly in nightclubs and theaters, and saw more than 1,000 young adults come together.

River Valley Pourhouse 2
River Valley’s Downtown Minneapolis Preview Night



“We have a good core group of people who have a lot of strength and hunger to see a campus downtown. Not just for themselves to make church more convenient, but so they can easily invite friends and family, co-workers and people they live around to church,” said Graham.

River Valley’s other seven campuses are spread out throughout the suburbs of the Twin Cities. Pastor Kirk Graham knows there are risks and drawbacks for churches who want to plant in an urban setting.

Pastor Kirk Graham River Valley
Campus Pastor Kirk Graham- River Valley


“The city seems a riskier place; riskier to build relationships since students move out in four years and young professionals leave more often; riskier financially, as it’s hard for a church to fund the higher costs themselves.”

But Graham feels more secure knowing their Minneapolis campus-plant has the financial backing of all of River Valley.


Substance Church

Substance Church got its start on the University of Minnesota campus 10 years ago, but moved to a location in Fridley, and later opened a Roseville campus. Drew Shepp says it’s time to move back to an urban setting.

Substance Church Downtown
Substance Church’s Downtown Minneapolis Preview Night


“The vision has always been an urban environment, with unreached groups of people who don’t have access or wouldn’t want to step inside a local church as they know it,” said Shepp.

Shepp’s co-pastor, Justin Greiman has a historical vantage point as to why many churches moved out of the city and into the suburbs.

“There’s been an anti-urban theology (in the past). Cities are where bad things happen. It could be a bit of protectionism, where Christians have moved out to the suburbs and into the country in order to live purer lives. I think that’s a subtext of the Christian story, said Justin Greiman.

But Greiman and Shepp believe this new mission field, the North Loop is a community within a larger community.

“The North Loop almost feels like a small town, people know each other and that’s one of the unique things about urban communities in general,” said Greiman.


Convenience and Walkability

One of the convenient aspects of Substance’s church venue is there is a parking garage attached to the building, so they don’t anticipate any parking issues. But ideally Substance and River Valley hope they attract people with the convenience and walkability of their new campus locations.

Corner Church 3
Corner Church and Corner Coffee Shop in the North Loop


Scott Woller, of Corner Church believes to reach this densely urban population, the ability to be within walking distance of the church must not be underestimated.

“The average North Loop resident isn’t going to say ‘I hear there is a great church in a suburb or even on the other side of downtown,’” said Woller. “In the city walking distance is your proximity for relationship. This is where you work, eat, walk your dog.”

“We would love to see our people leave church on a Sunday morning and spread out through the North Loop, to bless the restaurants and coffee shops with our business, to work hard to be a wonderful neighbor to the businesses and residents of the North Loop,” said Substance campus pastor Drew Shepp.

Woller says he’s talked with people from both Substance and River Valley about the challenges of reaching North Loop residents.

“Our passion and our calling is to build relationships with the people in the North Loop community who are not the easiest to reach. There are many stories of people who have been hurt by Christians and have terrible stories of their experience with church,” said Woller.

Corner Church
Corner Church and Corner Coffee Shop in the North Loop


Through Corner Church’s coffee shop, the church is a highly-relational ministry that has established itself as a valuable part of the community. They like to think of their church as a place for people to give church a second-try.

“Evangelism in the North Loop must be relationally, and not just blanket mass marketing. In order to redefine what it means to be a church or be a Christian, it can’t just be done on social media, with mailers and big signs; it has to be done through relationship,” said Woller.

And Woller says the best relationships have to be constant and committed. Historically he’s seen churches come into urban dense areas and leave. So Woller encourages all churches to have staying-power once they enter the North Loop.

“Whatever we do, let’s not be an outsider coming in, let’s be an insider and stay.”

August 20, 2015

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