Drawing the Unchurched
Meredith F. Holden, 75, a Connecticut native now living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, did secretarial and administrative work for years at Yale and the University of Connecticut. During those decades she felt drawn more to New Age spirituality than to the Christian faith she left in her teens. Holden moved to Santa Fe after her husband’s death.
While waiting at the Boston airport for her flight to board, she fell into light conversation with a stranger who predicted Holden would start attending church soon.
Though she had not been involved in church for nearly 60 years, Holden found the comment meaningful. Once in Santa Fe, a painter Holden hired invited her to The Grove, a new Assemblies of God congregation meeting in a theater. Holden checked it out.
“It was all really strange to me because I tend to be a very quiet, shy person,” she says. “Putting your hands up when you’re singing — that kind of emotion is not New England. But the church has this wonderful little rock band that made this big noise. I loved it.”
Holden surprised herself by crying throughout the service.
“It was a real emotional reaction and I’m not the only person,” Holden says. “I’ve seen other people let the water fall.”
A few weeks later, Pastor Eric B. Montoya, 38, baptized Holden, then 72, in a swimming pool.
Stories such as Holden’s are not unusual at The Grove, launched in 2014 by a team led by Montoya and his wife, Sincerity G. Montoya, 37. The two Santa Fe natives met in the youth group of an AG church, served in Paraguay with a pair of AG world missionaries for a couple of years, and then worked at nearby Bernalillo First Assembly for 11 years before starting The Grove in a Regal movie theater.
“We’ve always had a passion for our home city,” Eric says. “It’s highly unchurched.” Statistics bear him out.
One adherent, Irving O. Gonzalez, 28, says he had a “cutthroat attitude” toward life before he and wife, Veronica B. Gonzalez, 30, came to The Grove at the invitation of Veronica’s sister.
“We weren’t church people at all, but she really liked what was going on there and invited us a few times,” says Irving. “We were hesitant, but we ended up going as a favor and got hooked. A lot of the stuff that’s going on has changed our lives.”
Irving now serves on the sound team. Veronica is a greeter and a women’s group leader. Their 6-year-old daughter, Ariana, surprises them with what she learns in kids’ ministry.
“I didn’t see this happening at all,” Irving says. “I was at a point where I had given up on church. I thought I had to do things for myself, no one’s going to help me and that’s it.”
Since attending The Grove, Gonzalez says his attitude has shifted to what the Lord can do with his life.
“You start telling other people how amazing God is,” Gonzalez says. “The end goal is to get them to find a relationship with God.”
Although some irreligious friends think he’s gone off the deep end, Irving says The Grove has helped him to become more compassionate and loving, emotions he had difficulty showing before.
The Montoyas’ church-planting journey included training with the Church Multiplication Network and working for the late Carl Bauman, a church planter who mentored them for two years. Montoya served as a table coach at the CMN Launch event in May in Minneapolis. The Grove is a parent-affiliated church of Harvest Fellowship of Albuquerque.
Since the launch, people have accepted Jesus as Savior every week at The Grove. The church occupies three theaters — one for the main service, the others for kid’s ministry and the nursery. More than half the attendees belong to a small group.
Holden can attest to the spiritual impact.
“The rest of my life is going to be dedicated to Jesus,” she says. “I pray that every morning.”