A local church has grown exponentially since its inception in Lithia Park last summer. The group is challenging the connotations associated with the word “church,” Lead Pastor Xavier Brasseur said, partly by its name: The Story.
In a minimalistic office with views of the Railroad District and Grizzly Peak, Brasseur pulled up a chair.
“You want me to tell you the story of The Story?” he asked.
The 30-year-old says it started as a group of about 20 people congregating near the Butler Bandshell in Lithia Park last summer. Everyone sat in the grass and ate lunch together, Brasseur said. Then, they began to rent out the Community Center. The maximum seating is about 140 and the first Sunday saw full capacity, Brasseur said.
“I kept thinking after week two that a lot of these people weren’t going to come back,” Brasseur said. “But every week we just kept growing and we ran out of space within the first couple of months.”
The Christian Church of Ashland donated its 10,000-square-foot building at 318 B St. to The Story in February.
Just like that, the group that started out meeting in the park had a massive building in a central location.
Brasseur said the church seats 300 and it filled up immediately, so they built a balcony to fit 50 more and that filled up too.
“On our one-year anniversary, we saw people standing in the staircases and in the back with no seats, so we decided it’s time to go to two services,” Brasseur said.
The two services are at 9 and 11:15 a.m. Sundays.
He said both services are now full. So, they’ve just finished a basement remodel so they can live broadcast the service to an overflow audience of up to 150 people.
Perhaps it’s the eccentric millennial vibes that’s pulling in the crowds or maybe it’s the selfie wall. It could be the free Case coffee before every service or the brand new $200,000 custom-made sound system.
But maybe it’s the sense of community. Brasseur said the name “The Story” represents what the church stands for, which is celebrating everybody’s story and how individual stories create the greater narrative of the community.
A different member tells their story at each service. Additionally, Brasseur said he intentionally ensures there’s time for people to socialize and tell their stories to each other.
“Part of our mission is to create a culture where people can share their stories,” Brasseur said. “People have been so raw and vulnerable, sharing stuff you might not normally tell people in a church setting. They’re sharing the honesty of their story here in front of hundreds of people and what it’s doing is creating a type of culture where people can relate.”
Generous donations from the community are testament that Brasseur’s methods are working.
The $200,000 sound system was funded in the form of a check from an anonymous donor with a note attached about four months ago, Brasseur said.
“The note basically said, the music you guys are putting out is amazing, and we love it and we believe that it’s just going to continue to engage the community and draw people in, so we want you guys to have the best quality sound, lighting and production system,” Brasseur said.
He said the sound crew from Bethel Church in Redding, California, one of the best music producers in the “church realm,” custom-designed their sound and lighting system.
The sanctuary now turns into a professional quality rock concert and light show during the musical portion of sermons. “We offer earplugs in the back because some of the older people say it’s over-produced, but they’re starting to get used to it.” Brasseur said. “It’s a new generation, it’s a new style of music. So, bring your earplugs.”
The church is in the process of a full renovation. It now resembles a modern, hipster-friendly coffee-shop compared to the dusty, wood-paneled relic it once was. Some of the renovations include specific spaces for children of all ages, a “mother’s lounge” for breastfeeding moms and cranky babies, a very large youth group area and a music-recording studio.
Brasseur said another unique aspect of the church is that they pride themselves on bringing the arts back into the church, and they pride themselves on creating excellent work.
“We believe that art is going to engage and draw people in from the community just as much as the music, or the teaching or the aesthetic vibe,” Brasseur said.
Much of the artwork and sculpted aesthetics in the building came from local artists.
Brasseur said they also take advantage of social media, specifically Instagram.
“That’s where the younger generation is at on social media these days,” Brasseur said.
“Every Sunday I meet new people and I ask how they heard about us, and every Sunday there’s people that say they saw us on Instagram and wanted to come check us out,” Brasseur said.
He said they have 8,000 followers. And yes, there really is a selfie wall near the entrance.
Guests are encouraged to take a selfie when they walk in and share their story on social media.
Brasseur grew up in Ashland, then left for Bible School and to travel. He landed in Eugene where he became a pastor at Ekklesia Church. He also ministered the youth organization at the University of Oregon before moving back to Ashland with his wife and about six church members. Ekklesia sent Brasseur and his wife with $50,000 and resources such as children’s toys.
“I felt like I wanted to start my own church and come back to my hometown,” Brasseur said. “I knew that there wasn’t anything new like this in Ashland. There’s a lot of good churches here in Ashland, but they’re sort of old-school and don’t really reach the younger generation and the millennials.”
Brasseur said the church appeals to the younger generations, but there’s a healthy mix of ages.
He said the best way to describe the church is non-denominational, although his background is in Christianity.
“This is a safe space where people can find belonging even if they maybe have different beliefs,” Brasseur said.
The building was gifted because the Christian church of Ashland had slowly dissolved over the past 5-10 years and needed a new vision, Brasseur said. The Christian Church allowed The Story to park their trailer in the parking lot while renting space from the Community Center. Eventually someone from the Christian Church suggested Brasseur take over in exchange for the free building.
Brasseur said the church is working on policies to allow others to use the space and to facilitate community creative events such as an open space for artists on First Fridays.
“The fact that we were given a space for free is the hugest blessing ever, so of course we want to share it,” Brasseur said.
Brasseur said he came across ledgers dating back to the ‘40s during the renovation. In these ledgers, he found records saying both his father and grandmother attended the church.
He encourages anyone interested to attend one of two Christmas Eve services offered at 3 and 5 p.m. or to come to a Sunday service.
“It’s crazy to look back a year ago when we thought we would be sitting in the grass for a long time,” Brasseur said. “I didn’t know that the community would be so ready and so receptive to something like this.”