Aaron Graham is talking to Washingtonians about power.
“How do you live out your identity and have influence, not just in your personal life but in your public life?” he asks, standing at the front of a school auditorium in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood. Lanky, informal and casually dressed, Graham could be mistaken for a tech guy, albeit one who is clearly at ease talking about the meaning of life in front of several hundred people.
The crowd before him listens raptly; some people take notes.
Graham continues. “We all have the ability to talk to someone. How will you live out that calling? Let’s pray,” he says, bowing his head. “You call us, God. How do we make our time here count? How do we use our influence?”
Graham, 36, is the founder and lead pastor of the District Church, the biggest new church most Washingtonians have never heard of. Celebrating its sixth anniversary in September, the institution gathers upwards of 600 worshipers on Sundays. The vast majority of them are Millennials, the demographic group pollsters have described as significantly less religious than the rest of the population.
The District Church isn’t D.C.’s only church for young professionals. In the past few years, there’s been a wave of new churches targeting the young professionals who have moved into the city in droves. But Graham’s church is the most successful of that crop. That might have to do with his intuitive sense of what young people in Washington are seeking, which has resulted in a potent combination of social justice, multiculturalism and unfiltered evangelicalism.
Graham likes to dispel the myth that young adults aren’t interested in religion. It is true that young adults are most apt to identify as ‘nones,’ that growing segment of Americans that do not identify with a traditional faith group
But while “people aren’t automatically checking the box for which religion they are, like they used to,” Graham says, many “young people are very engaged with their faith.” Millennials want to be involved in something that is going to touch the core of them, he explains; it just has to feel authentic.
Giving idealists a way to make a difference, while keeping faith on the front burner
Over the past five years or so, churches all over the District—and all over the country—have discovered the same thing. Religion, it turns out, can still appeal to young people: it simply needs to look a little different.
That’s most obvious in cities, where new churches have sprung up to meet the needs of urban dwellers. In D.C., they are institutions like The Table, Anacostia River Church, Grace Capital City, Triumph Church, and Redemption Hill. All of them feature sleek websites, but they’re also designed to be participatory in a way that makes worshipers part of the process. The congregations also meet in small groups during the week, to discuss faith and life and build a sense of community among people whose families might be far away.
And most of them are nondenominational. Many could technically be called evangelical—that is, they believe in the authority of the Bible and emphasize spreading its message—but the word has political baggage with conservative connotations, and many pastors shy away from it.
The District Church shares those characteristics: it is nondenominational, relies on volunteers to help with a huge range of tasks, and hosts dozens of small group meetings across the region every week. But Graham’s philosophies and practices seem to resonate with some D.C. residents In particular. Maybe that’s because he gets that many are in Washington to make a difference and are looking to be inspired. In response, he encourages them to find meaning within the context of Christianity.
“My dream is that when young people think about changing the world, they’ll think about doing it with a local church,” he says. “They’ll have a theology about how to treat people, about where it all fits.”
That ethos of faith in action is a backbone of the church. Its main citywide ministry is DC127, a nonprofit promoting fostering and adoption that church leaders established in 2013. Congregants help out at other organizations, including mentoring children at the two schools where the District Church holds services on Sundays. And small groups are encouraged to take on their own service projects.
But the concepts of service and justice aren’t exclusively tied to specific projects. The church is intentionally multicultural, and Graham constantly emphasizes inclusion and racial reconciliation. Three years ago, the church opened a second parish in the Northeast neighborhood of Rosedale, near H Street, with the aim of ministering simultaneously to new residents and longtime black Washingtonians. It’s still a work in progress, but church leaders have developed relationships with neighborhood families and have begun seeing some on Sundays.
“It fits into the DNA of District Church to embody as much diversity as we can,” says Matthew Watson, pastor of the Northeast parish.
An early call to ministry
But all of that occurs within a framework of faith that’s not watered down. While Graham actively welcomes nonbelievers and agnostics, he doesn’t shy away from using Christian language that continually holds up Jesus and unabashedly talks about God’s love.
The combination of those elements—social justice and personal piety—makes Graham a little unique. In American Christianity today, there’s generally a schism between the two. “You have churches that are more conservative, focused on personal faith, versus those that are more liberal, which have more of a social justice focus,” says Dave Ferguson, a pastor and president of the Exponential conference, which trains over 10,000 church leaders annually.
“You put them together, that makes for an exceptional church,” adds Ferguson, who knows Graham personally. “I think District Church is a glimpse of the future of what churches are going to look like.”
It certainly is a reflection of Graham’s past. The son of Baptist missionaries, Graham spent three years of his childhood in Liberia observing poverty firsthand, and another six months or so in Kuwait, six weeks of it as a hostage in the US Embassy after Saddam Hussein’s army invaded the country in 1990. Then he returned to the US and became a suburban kid in Richmond, Va. Taken together, those experiences shaped him.
“That’s a lot of my life—being a privileged kid and figuring out how to steward that privilege,” Graham says.
He felt a call to ministry at 16, and spent five years establishing a church in a poor area of Boston after college. Realizing that he needed to learn more about “how the world works,” as he puts it, Graham earned a masters degree at Harvard’s public policy school, and later worked as a national organizer for Sojourners, a progressive evangelical organization based in D.C. But once he was married with two kids (his wife, Amy, is also a pastor with District Church), he decided to focus locally.
So in the spring of 2010, Graham quit his job and started the District Church in his Columbia Heights living room. That September, the group moved to a nearby charter school. Since then, despite the transience of D.C., it’s grown steadily. People tend to find out about it through friends or the internet, and many invest considerable time and money in the church; its $1.5 million budget comes almost entirely from congregants’ contributions.
A spiritually diverse congregation
Ian Vickery, a graduate student and sales specialist, found out about the church from a friend’s Facebook page. “I was looking for something young and mission-oriented,” he says. “It’s very community focused here; it’s about serving. We don’t want to be told what to believe—we want to go out and live our faith.”
Graham says many of the District Church’s regulars are “owning their faith” for the first time as adults; others are less religious but find they appreciate the church’s messages.
Keely Monroe fits into the latter category. Six months ago, a friend convinced her to attend, and she’s been coming back. “I’m not especially religious, but I feel like it’s super inspirational—I like being reminded of different values,” says Monroe, 34, an attorney.
Monroe was at church on the July Sunday following the week in which Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and five Dallas policemen were killed. “The service about the shootings—it was really great, about balancing both sides,” she says.
Graham says he rewrote his sermon that Friday after feeling the weight of what had occurred. In the resulting lecture, he presented biblical practices, including listening, for dealing with grief and anger. “We have a problem in America today, and it’s a listening problem,” he told the congregation. “Too many of us are influenced by our politics and not our faith. We must be quick to listen and slow to speak.”
Later that day, District Church members participated in a rally on Freedom Plaza convened largely by black churches. Ashley Moore, a longtime church member, was there, listening to speeches about justice, unity, and faith in action. At one point, she remembers, a pastor started a chant that the crowd repeated: “This is what theology looks like”—that is, it’s not just something that occurs within the four walls of a church.
“That was a transformational moment for me,” she says. “That’s the heart of what our church is.”
Amanda Abrams is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.