KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There are about 40 inmates in all, every one sporting a blue shirt. They’ve been filing slowly into a stuffy room under harsh fluorescent lighting in the basement of the Lansing Correctional Facility’s maximum security unit — max, as they call it for short.
There isn’t air conditioning in this room, a few of the inmates point out. Just a couple of fans. They carry chair after chair through the corridor-like space that warms slowly as more and more of them plant themselves on either side of two televisions set up in the middle.
Chatter fills the room. Small talk. Polite nods. Catching up. Learning names. The kind of interactions you’d expect in a grocery store, maybe, or an elevator.
Then the voices quiet, except for one. In prayer.
Gerry Lewis bows his head, speaking quietly but firmly enough so his voice carries throughout the large room and over the whirring of the fans. Other heads follow suit, dropping in unison to bend toward the floor, closing their eyes and opening them again with a full-throated chorus of “Amen!” at the end.
Soon, the inmates will begin watching a video about the life of Jesus Christ. They’ll finish that and file out of the room to meet in small groups of seven or eight men and a pair of volunteers to talk about Christianity. Not all of them are Christian — that’s not a prerequisite to be part of this group. Some have different faiths. Some say they don’t believe in anything at all.
Then they’ll go back to their cells, but not before most say a quick goodnight and give a firm handshake — and an occasional hug — to Lewis and his volunteers.
The men who arrived on that drizzly Monday evening are part of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection’s prison ministry. It’s Lewis’ brainchild, a suggestion from 2004 that came to life about seven years ago. The group works with Brothers in Blue, a program that prepares inmates for life in the world beyond prison by teaching them about things like fatherhood, money management, job skills — and religion.
The ministry work of the church takes its people into basement rooms with fluorescent lights and no air conditioning every week, into the embraces of men whose crimes they choose not to learn about right away because everyone is a child of God.
It takes them into schools just miles from where they live, schools filled with students who might not have enough to eat over the weekends when school lunches can’t help them get by.
It takes them far away from the suburban sprawl or the downtown high-rises of Kansas City, Mo., to Haiti and Malawi and Honduras and Jamaica to shovel concrete or give children basic medical examinations.
It takes a lot of people to pull off what they do. But raw numbers aren’t a problem for Church of the Resurrection: More than 15,000 church-goers attend four campuses sprawled across the Kansas City area. Thousands of them have left their mark through missions work over the years in whatever way they can.
Almost everyone you talk to nods knowingly when the word “megachurch” comes up. That word has had its fair share of criticism, garnering something of a negative reputation and summoning images of mechanized, army-like congregations packed into auditoriums the size of football fields.
But being “that big church” isn’t at all what they’re striving to be — though that’s the label they sometimes hear. This isn’t about size. It’s not even about evangelism or conversion.
It’s about leaving a footprint.
On Oct. 6, 1990, about 100 people gathered in McGilley Funeral Home for services led by Adam Hamilton, a dynamic young pastor from Southern Methodist University’s theology school.
Two years later, that number had jumped to 230.
The next year, Matthew’s Ministry began to give families with developmentally disabled children and adults a place to worship. Five years after that, their mission work went global.
Now, it’s coming up on the 22nd anniversary of the day those 100 people met for the first time to start a new house of worship.
It’s quite the dichotomy: Members say that Church of the Resurrection is larger than life and as intimate as the group of 100 who started it.
In that time, the congregation has built an enormous home campus in Leawood, Mo. It’s impossible to miss the buildings, even from a good distance away — driving down Roe Avenue gives you a sense of the expanse of the grounds. On your first visit, you’d probably find yourself in need of someone to guide you from building to building and along the labyrinthine hallways.
The growing didn’t stop in Leawood. The church has a branch formed in 2009 that found a permanent home in downtown Kansas City last October. Another campus opened in Olathe under the name Resurrection West in 2006 and also moved to its own building last year. Still another campus began in Blue Springs, Mo., in 2010. Each of these satellites has Sunday services that stream Hamilton’s sermons live from Leawood or feature another pastor — or sometimes both.
Sitting in a packed sanctuary with hundreds of other people in Leawood, listening to the reverberations echoing in the space as the Lord’s Prayer is on everyone’s lips, it’s easy to wonder if people feel lost in a congregation the size of a small town, on a campus that seems like it should have its own zip code.
“You don’t really feel that way. It’s amazing,” says Rita Malone, who’s been with the church for three years. “You feel very included, like you can take part in whatever you want, ask any questions you want to. You can just do as you want to, and you’ll still be loved.”
Missions program director Jeanna Repass arrived at Church of the Resurrection from a traditional, normal-sized Lutheran congregation, curious to see what she’d encounter.
“What you find very luckily is that we’re a very large church made up of a very small people,” she said.
A smallness that comes, in part, from the host of ministries that send the congregation from the sanctuaries to the schools, the prisons and the stores for holiday gifts and canned goods and bed linens. A smallness that comes from the small groups the church helps its congregation to form.
In a curious, circular way, it’s possible that the very thing that makes the church seem small may actually be helping it get even bigger.
The programs handed out at services and the inserts within are covered in ways to give back — be it with time, money or both. The church’s website lists the ministry options its congregation has to choose from.
Beds. Furnishings. Cars. Computers. Clothing. Food. Tutoring. Summer reading. Foster and adoptive care. Prison. Human trafficking.
And those are just the options in Kansas City. Should you want to travel the world with Church of the Resurrection, there’s a separate page for that.
Jeanna Repass, who coordinates the lengthy list of ministries, is one of just nine church staffers who handle thousands of volunteers.
They’ve worked with three schools to paint and do light renovations to get the buildings “in the type of shape where kids feel like they could learn,” Repass said.
And they stick around — this isn’t a “paint and run” organization, in Repass’ words. There are liaisons who keep up with the schools to meet any needs that might come up during the school year. Repass said they’ve put about $120,000 into the schools they work with, including maintaining their playgrounds.
In other words, they’ve left a footprint.
The scale is impressive, but Repass doesn’t attribute it to the work the missions staff does.
“I wish missions could take any kind of credit,” she said. “It really is about the vision of Adam Hamilton.”
Rev. Hamilton will tell you that the dream of the church on Oct. 6, 1990, was to give people a way to “live out their faith in the world.” On a 25-year horizon, he said, those first 100 people wanted to make Kansas City look more like Jesus pictured it — as the kingdom of God.
The ideal city. Starting with Roe Avenue and working outward.
But how does a church turn a Midwestern metropolis into the kingdom of God? It’s a big task, to be sure, but they started with poverty relief.
“Our hope is 20 years from now … that there are literally hundreds of children that might have ended up in poverty that don’t,” Hamilton said.
If these were easy problems to solve, Hamilton says, they would’ve been solved already.
“We come not as the people who have all the answers but as servants coming alongside others,” he said. “We’re going to roll up our sleeves, and we’re here to help.”