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ST. LOUIS • It takes only a few minutes to figure out this is not going to be a typical Methodist church service.

In the foyer, members of The Gathering stop for a cup of French roast or decaf coffee to take with them into the sanctuary.

On the wall across from the coffee station hang paintings for sale, work in acrylic by a church member as part of a rotating art gallery.

And then there is Pastor Matt Miofsky, dressed in typical attire — jeans, polo shirt, tennis shoes. Last Sunday, a pair of sunglasses was perched atop his head. On a hot July day, and fresh off a two-week beach vacation with family, they did not necessarily seem out of place.

But they were a prop. A conversation piece. Identical shades were passed out to the congregation the week before, promoting a new three-week summer sermon series called "For STL".

The series title sums up the church's founding, and its future. A bright future, as the sunglasses would not so lightly symbolize. One that includes rapid growth based on the simple premise that anyone who walks through the front doors is welcome. No asterisks.

A new building is under construction to support that growth, and the expectation that it will continue. Near the corner of Manchester and McCausland avenues, the church should be ready to move into by late next month, able to accommodate more than 600 people, easily doubling what the current place of worship can hold.

As Miofsky was starting The Gathering 12 years ago, he would ask people: Why do you go to church?

"Or more importantly, why do you not go to church? One of the pieces of feedback I got consistently was that church is hypocritical, judgmental, unwelcoming."

Especially to those in the gay community. And young families wanted a place to raise their children with open minds.

"We never made any particular issue the defining issue of our church," Miofsky said. "What defined us, is that we're all people wanting a relationship with church, a place to follow Christ, a place to belong," Miofsky said. "As we grew, mainly through word of mouth, we had more and more stories of people who had written off church, hurt or burned by the church. But they were willing to give it another chance, to find something meaningful and powerful for their life."

Miofsky addressed the rapid growth in his sermon last Sunday, pushing back against concerns that the charm and intimacy attractive to many members will disappear when moving into a much larger space.

He shared the story of beginning the congregation before moving into a donated church building in the Franz Park neighborhood.

"It was 10 people in my living room eating doughnuts. And now you are saying: 'I'm glad you were willing to change and transition to welcome me, but now that I'm here, I think we are big enough.' We can't to that."

Growth, he said, is not about "butts in the seats, dollars in the plate." It's about remembering why The Gathering was started.

"To make sure there is some room at the table."

Member Laura Checkett is grateful that space was made for her. Raised in an Evangelical household, she hid who she was, taught that being gay was an abomination.

"I grew up loving God and that connection to the church but feeling like a fraud," said Checkett. So as a young adult, "I ran far, far away from church and God. I said: 'This is bogus. If I can't be who I am, how can I have that intimate relationship?'"

A friend told her about The Gathering. It sounded great. Still, she was skeptical. Checkett had heard about so-called inclusive churches before only to find it a veneer to get people in the door before the molding began.

At The Gathering, Checkett, 37, co-founded Emerge, a group specifically for the LGBTQ community. It's a way to more directly connect with others who have had similar experiences with religion, she said. This summer and last, Emerge had a booth at PrideFest, part of a community outreach effort that will be ramped up as the United Methodist Church's top policy-making body, General Conference, prepares to meet in special session in February at The Dome in downtown St. Louis.

The more than 800 delegates consider revisions to church law, as well as adopt resolutions "on current moral, social, public policy and economic issues," according to a news release on the upcoming assembly. Among the topics expected to be discussed: leadership roles within the Church for those who identify as queer; and same-sex marriage.

Thomas Van Horn, a first-year medical student at Washington University, said The Gathering is not specifically lobbying the General Conference for change, but is going to make it known more widely that "we are living examples of what it means to be queer Christians and exclusion only hurts the Church."

Four years ago, Van Horn, 22, found out about The Gathering while attending "Bar Church" at a midtown tavern. It's church leaders taking services to places where souls are not necessarily lost, but certainly wandering.

SUBHEAD

Miofsky was a math major at Washington University, where he began as a freshman in 1995. Theoretical math, to be exact. He played football his first year and was invited to be part of the university's Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He began leading a Tuesday night Bible study. The enrichment from religion took hold. 

"Maybe math was what I liked but not what I would do with my life," Miofsky realized. So after WashU, he got his master's in divinity from Emory University. The Washington, Mo. native came back to St. Louis and served four years as associate pastor at Webster Hills United Methodist Church, in Webster Groves.

In 2006, at age 28, he started his own congregation, The Gathering.

Miofsky immediately began focusing on bringing back into the fold those who were no longer connected in a formal way to a congregation. Like those who went away for college, leaving behind religion as something outdated, or staid. Shedding part of their past.

Miofsky's sermons are always uplifting, often playful and sometimes come with provocative titles and subject matter, like "Holy Shift" a series on how to move through life when "what we think will happen gets turned on its head."

Then there is "The Birds, The Bees and The Bible." Yes, it's a series of sermons about sex and the role Miofsky says the church should take in leading the discussion.

Last month, Miofsky gave a tour of what will be The Gathering's new home. The 26,000 square feet building is situated two blocks south from the congregation's largest place of worship in an old Methodist church. It was donated to The Gathering after the former congregation had fallen to a membership level too low to be sustainable. Services also are held in smaller spaces in Clayton and Webster Groves and will continue to be when the new church opens its doors.

With hard hat on, Miofsky walked through the large sunlit lobby, connecting the sanctuary on the left and children's classrooms on the right. The lobby will feature a fireplace and a blown glass installation featuring the same colors of the stained glass windows in the current location. 

"Obviously, this is contemporary but we wanted to mix traditional elements," Miofsky said of the new building, the facade a grid of metal panels in orange and gray. A large patio off the back of the lobby features a wall built with rocks on which church members wrote personal messages including prayers for the future of The Gathering.

The new location sits on four acres, a former used car dealership, providing 200 parking spaces compared to the 37 at the current Methodist church site.

Behind the pulpit is a floor to ceiling LED screen.

"This space can hold 600 plus people, more than double our current space," Miofsky said. "We are getting pretty fully on Sundays. We didn't want that to be a barrier to others coming."

Currently, The Gathering averages 1,400 people a weekend at the multiple services in its three locations. The United Methodist Church this year ranked The Gathering its third fastest growing congregation in the country.

Last week, in The Gathering's current home, Miofsky launched the "For STL" sermon series with The Parable of the Lost Sheep. It's about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the pasture to search for the one that is lost. He comes back with the wayward sheep over his shoulders, imploring his friends and neighbors to celebrate.

"I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent," says Jesus in the Book of Mark.

It's the foundation of The Gathering, Miofsky said.

"If you feel lost, far away, I want you to know this church is yours. There is more joy in you being here than in 99 who don't think they need anything at all."

Then, as he does at each service, he invited everyone to take communion.

Wine to the left, grape juice to the right. Gluten-free wafers available upon request.

"Everyone is welcome to take communion," Miofsky said. "We  just ask that you are seeking Christ. Wherever you are in that journey."

Van Horn said The Gathering has built a reputation as a place for those in the LGBTQ community to worship, but the church is more than that.

"At The Gathering, it's a celebration of the whole person, an amalgamation of a lot of identities," he said, "and all those identities are made in the image of God."

Miofsky knew he had tapped into something 12 years ago, but admits the rate of growth is something he could not have imagined. It's not about lost souls, but about those who had lost hope, he said. Those who look beyond the plentiful coffee, the sincere smiles and the comfortable seats and see themselves among the flock.

"It's extraordinarily powerful for someone to know they are not alone."