WALLINGFORD — While centuries-old churches have closed throughout the region, a transplanted Florida couple is building one from the ground up.
Mike and April Brunjes, both 33, moved from their hometown of West Palm Beach, Florida, with their three children last March to plant a new Presbyterian church in Wallingford.
“The ultimate goal is to be a fully-fledged church — worshipping regularly on Sundays in a space that is our own,” the Rev. Mike Brunjes said.
The process began before their move to Connecticut, when they had to select a town. After Mike Brunjes spoke with Christ Presbyterian Church in New Haven — a church that has helped plant about 16 churches over the past five years— they spent a day driving around Connecticut.
“(We) went to coffee shops and ate at places and just talked to people and in multiple conversations, as we described who we were and what we were looking for, Wallingford came up,” he said.
Brunjes said once they moved, he started learning about the community by listening to anyone willing to teach him about Wallingford. Soon, he started getting involved, including joining the HUBCAP education committee and attending library events.
“I just started basically hanging out and going wherever I could, and asking people ‘what kind of church do you think would better serve and benefit this town,’” he said.
The Christ Presbyterian Church in New Haven has a dedicated ministry for planting churches, called Mission Anabaino. The church helped Brunjes make a four-year budget and all the money the family has raised goes through the church elders, who then distribute it to Brunjes.
“I think because of our age and family, people find that unique... I like to think we’re just average people trying to figure out how to raise our kids and make our marriage work and just happened to be like really invested in our faith,” he said. “I think a lot of people find it at least interesting why a church is starting when so many are closing.”
A 2015 Gallup poll found the Northeast is the least religious region in the U.S. and a Pew Research Center study found that weekly church attendance among adults in Connecticut was at 28 percent in 2014, down from 31 percent in 2007.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford went from 212 parishes to 127 last year, in a consolidation effort that closed many parishes and merged others.
So why would a Presbyterian pastor from a Bible Belt state want to start a church from scratch in the Northeast?
“We just see there’s more of a need of churches up here just by sheer percentages of what number of people go to church,” said Jeff Hutchinson, coordinator of Mission Anabaino.
Hutchinson said there seemed to be a religious shift in the 1800s when many churches became too literal and harsh and lost “the heartbeat of Jesus.”
Mike Brunjes describes that familiar feeling of being out of place and judged for being new the first time you walk into a parish that’s been around for hundreds of years.
“Whether it’s a church, or any sort of civic organization, sometimes you walk in and there’s like certain unspoken rules,” he said.
One of their arguments for starting new churches is that people can be themselves.
“We definitely want to be a place... to worship Jesus, we want to study the Bible, we want to take the sacraments, and we want to do it in a way that if you’ve never experienced that before, it’s a safe place to ask questions about it, even ones that would be considered taboo (in other churches),” Mike Brunjes said.
Rev. Dr. James Campbell of First Congregational Church in Cheshire said his church, founded in 1724, has felt the weight of declining attendance.
“I think churches have to be willing to sometimes shift radically in order to be welcoming to a wider demographic of people,” Campbell said.
Campbell said church attendance has traditionally “waxed and waned” throughout history, but this particular shift seems a little more dramatic.
April Brunjes said they’ve found “it takes time for people to gain that trust to maybe want to be a part of your church. Whereas in the South, it’s more of a cultural thing to go to church on Sundays.”
What the couple is doing is called “scratch planting” – which means there isn’t a core group of parishioners lined up to join their new church and they don’t have a large budget.
Even though church planting may be considered easier in the so-called Bible Belt, “the bad part is you sort of take for granted and you forget that every aspect of planting a church needs to be marked by goodness and truth and God,” Hutchinson said.
Mike and April Brunjes feel strongly that their church should be a reflection of the congregation.
“People can come... and say, I don’t know if I believe all of the same doctrines... but I know that this is a safe place that I can ask questions about God, ask questions about myself, ask questions about the world,” Mike Brunjes said.
In deciding to leave Florida, the couple also considered the challenges their children might face. Ultimately, they saw it as an opportunity to show Lily, 8, Maggie, 4, and eventually Haddon, their 1-year-old, they were willing to try something they believed God was calling them too.
“We kind of hope that they see it kind of like an adventure of faith, and just kind of really living out what you believe and trusting that God will know what’s best for you and now we try to have them see it as they have ownership of it too,” April Brunjes said.
Church planting happens in three stages: develop, grow, and gather. The couple are in between the develop and grow stages.
About 10 adult community members, along with their children, are part of their core group participating in Bible studies at their home every other Sunday evening.
Anyone is invited to join. To learn more about the church, visit the website cpcwallingford.org or on Facebook Christ Presbyterian Church Wallingford.
“We’re definitely interested in meeting people who are curious about what we’re doing and would want to be a part of starting a church,” Mike Brunjes said. “I think the greatest need of a church plant is people, because church is people.”