A West Mifflin couple says the Internet helps them do God's work.
Armed with little more than faith and a computer, Josh and Nicole Bilsky began working on their vision of establishing a new church.
"We couldn't find a place where we could get plugged in, use our skills and our talents to serve," Mr. Bilsky recalled. "One day in January, it just came to me. Maybe we're being called to do something more than just go somewhere."
On Sept. 9, the Bilskys watched some 150 people arrive to participate in the first service for the nondenominational Exalt Church. Following a steady turnout on a biweekly basis, the church holds contemporary worship at 10:30 a.m. each Sunday in the gymnasium of Wilson Christian Academy on Clairton Road, West Mifflin.
To proceed from idea to reality, the Bilskys started at the logical place for 30-somethings: They went online.
Mr. Bilsky, who works as an information technology manager, built a website as the proposed church's first resource. From there, it was a matter of using the Web's connectivity resources to find like-minded people.
Enter Thomas Ondrea, a Wilkes-Barre native who had relocated to Norfolk, Va. He started an online chat with the Bilskys in February and met them in person in March.
"They were looking for a pastor, trying to find someone to come out and really get the ball rolling," Mr. Ondrea said. "We saw the South Hills as an area where a relevant contemporary church was needed."
In the meantime, the Bilskys made arrangements to hold services at Wilson, which, as it turned out, needed a Bible teacher for the coming academic year. Mr. Ondrea, who holds a master's degree in church planning and evangelism from Liberty College (now Liberty University) in Lynchburg, Va., decided to make the move back north with his wife, Christine, and two sons.
So Exalt Church had a pastor and a place to meet. The next step was a congregation.
The Bilskys took their message to the streets, or at least to area Community Days and similar events, meeting people and gathering contact information to help spread the word through emails, Facebook, Twitter and the like.
"The social networking aspect has been huge for us," said Mr. Bilsky, whose official role with the church is marketing director. "It's really allowed us to meet people without spending too much money."
The low-budget marketing approached has been effective, judging by the Sept. 9 turnout.
"We understand on the launch, we had some family members there to support us, and some people just checking it out and being there for support," Mr. Ondrea said. But the Exalt team is encouraged by attendance that has continued to top 100 since the first service.
Among those attending has been Munhall resident Ken Logsdon. He and his wife, Lisa, had been members of another place of worship for more than 20 years.
"We recently left that church to look for a church that had a leader with a vision," he said. "We also wanted our two daughters, Lia and Allissa, to plug into a church where they could be involved with the music ministry, as well as the arts and community outreach. We have found that with Exalt."
The Logdsons quickly have become integrated: Allissa is on the adult worship team; Lia is a youth leader and Lisa is conducting children's ministry.
"We've bought into their vision of doing church a bit differently but still sticking to a serious message," said Mr. Logsdon, who also serves in leadership roles.
Visitors to www.exaltchurch.com will notice a different approach right away. Prominent on the home page is the message "Reinvent Church," with the "Re" part inverted. The website features an "I'm New!" dropdown menu that provides a comprehensive view of what the church offers.
Services feature contemporary Christian music in a concert-like setting, for which the Wilson gym comes in handy.
"We use electric guitars, we use drums and we jam out a little bit," Mr. Ondrea said. "We've seen older people come into our church, and they're raising their hands and praising the Lord. And we've seen younger people on the other side of the church raising their hands and praising God."
He preaches in casual clothes and encourages others to wear whatever makes them comfortable. But his ultimate responsibility is the same as any other pastor.
"We don't water down the gospel message just to keep people. We talk about real things. We talk about heaven, and we talk about hell, and we talk about sin. We preach the Word, for sure."
Harry Funk, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.