Matt Grimsley, a 37-year-old pastor, describes his new venture as a startup.
It’s just that instead of founding a tech company, he’s founded a church.
Grimsley has spent about a year raising capital and building a following for his new Presbyterian church, Resurrection Madison. So far he’s cultivated about 40 “early adopters.” The group is young — Grimsley said that almost all of them are under 40. About half of them are employees of Epic Systems, the Verona-based health care medical records company.
The church had its first official congregation last Sunday in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, a block away from Camp Randall Stadium. The “launch service” included a party featuring the popular taco food cart El Grito.
Grimsley said he began describing his church as a startup to better communicate his evangelical mission to a community that’s largely secular. People in Madison may not speak the language of religion, but they increasingly speak the language of tech, he said.
“The startup industry is booming, so people tend to understand that,” he said.
Grimsley also said that he genuinely approaches “church planting,” a term used by religious organizations to describe the formation of new congregations, with a startup mentality. He may not be creating a for-profit venture like other entrepreneurs often do, but the project is capital-intensive and imbued with uncertainty.
“There's tons of inherent risk in what we're doing,” he said. “We could close tomorrow.”
The church may have a startup-centric spin on church and appeal to younger people, said Grimsley, but he stressed that nothing about it is a gimmick. He’s not a fan of the way other churches have tried to be relevant in a way that feels inauthentic.
“When you go to church, it's half rock show, it's half movie screens. In an attempt to be relevant, it's trying to do adopt a lot of things that I think are really unhealthy .... Just be a church. Be who you are,” he said.
Grimsley first arrived to Madison about a year ago after 11 years working at a ministry in Knoxville, Tennessee, with a charge from the Presbyterian Church in America to “plant” a new church in town. Grimsley said that the group, along with other Christian affiliations, has been creating more churches across the country in reaction to the growth of "post-Christian" society, where religion no longer plays a central role in life.
Madison, he said, is seen as frontier territory for Presbyterianism. It’s widely known as a place that’s not religious, Grimsley said, and secular culture is something he encounters constantly. He’s been met with more than a few dismissive attitudes toward his work. When he walks over to the communal working space 100state, he’s met with prominent signage celebrating atheism outside the headquarters of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Ironically, that secular culture is what attracted him to Madison in the first place. Ever since he grew up in a Pentecostal Church community that with a proclivity for physical healing rituals and speaking in tongues, he said that he’s approached life and religion with a skeptical mind.
"I was born skeptical," said Grimsley. "Even as a six, seven-year-old, I remember going, ‘I don't know about this.’"
That attitude is baked into the church’s missions. On its website, Resurrection Madison claims to be “a place for the convinced and the unconvinced, the curious, the skeptic.”
Grimsley said that it’s attracting young and mobile demographics because he’s offering something fresh. He wouldn’t go so far as to say he’s “disrupting” local worship — "we didn't come to give already existing Christians a cooler place for going to church,” he said. However, he is working hard to reach out to new people, particularly those who feel disconnected from religion.
"Church plants have a way of engaging new peoples," he said. “There's something about existing churches that just gets kind of stagnated.”
Resurrection Madison, said Grimsley, will also be a place to find comfort and belonging for a population that faces some spiritual challenges. Grimsley said it can be tough for young tech employees who are new to town.
“You work yourself to death, you isolate yourself,” he said. “Loneliness is a pandemic in our culture right now."
Resurrection Madison, he said, can provide the community they need.