For many Loudoun residents, church service isn't held in a vaulted sanctuary. Instead, they gather to worship in an unlikely place: a public school gymnasium.
"A church is the people, not the building," said Pastor Clancy Nixon, who has been with Church of the Holy Spirit since it was established nearly three years ago. Every Sunday, volunteers from the congregation spend an hour transforming the gym at Mill Run Elementary School in Broadlands from an impersonal cube to a place of worship. After service, they pack up again until next week.
"I think you become more of a church family when you're here working, setting up and tearing down," said Leanne Massock as she arranged the altar at Church of the Holy Spirit last Sunday. The Ashburn resident has been in charge of altar set-up for two years and has created a binder filled with illustrated step-by-step instructions, should anyone need to fill in for her.
Massock's laying out of the altar is the last step that finishes the transformation of Mill Run's gym. Earlier that morning, a crew of volunteers began by rolling large gray cases out of a trailer.
"I CALL IT 'church in a box,'" said Nixon.
With the help of Portable Church Industries, a company exclusively devoted to organizing upstart churches, Holy Spirit can be packed into 15 cases at 6 by 4 by 2 feet each. The cases are filled with enough equipment to set up sound for the band and equip rooms for childcare.
"That's everything we need to do church service," said Chuck Henry, who acts as the church's sound technician.
With a 10 a.m. Sunday service that attracts about 150 attendees and growing, the next step for Holy Spirit is a big one, according to Henry.
"One of our challenges is going to be expansion," he said. "We'd like to go to an extra service."
In the meantime, Holy Spirit conducts a spirited, casual service in the gym after its highly organized cadre of volunteers lays out tables, lines up chairs and sets up a screen for Nixon's powerpoint sermon. With a few little touches — a navy dust ruffle on the table where churchgoers kneel to take communion, for example — the blankness of the gym fades.
For Glenn Schubert, the first services he attended in the gym were dominated by the gym-like quality of the room. It didn't take long for that to change.
"Three weeks later, it's like ... it's a church," Schubert said.
While Nixon has eventual plans to build a traditional church for Holy Spirit, for now the congregation will continue to gather at Mill Run. In fact, Nixon says, so many churches are springing up in Loudoun that there aren't enough school gyms to hold them all — they just wait for the next school to be built.
"This is just the way churches are started," he said.
CHURCH OF THE HOLY SPIRIT is one of many Loudoun churches to meet in a non-traditional space. There's South Riding Episcopal Church, which meets in South Riding's Town Hall. There's Daybreak Community Church, which meets in Farmwell Station Middle School, there's Grace Community Church in Cedar Lane Elementary School, New Life Christian Church in the Regal Cinema in Sterling, SonRise Community Church in Seldons Landing Elementary School — and the list goes on.
The Rev. Jack Grubbs left Falls Church Episcopal in 2001 to "plant" Potomac Falls Episcopal at Horizon Elementary School in Sterling. Members of Falls Church Episcopal who traveled to attend services were interested in having their own church, he said.
"As people heard about it ... they caught the vision for it and got excited at the idea of planting a congregation right at home," Grubbs said.
By spring 2001, Grubbs and his fledgling flock were meeting in living rooms for worship, Bible study and planning the new church. People rallied around the idea of a new church, Grubbs says, because it presented an unique opportunity.
"You have lots of opportunities to do some creative things," he said. "You establish your own traditions. That's been the fun of it."
In Potomac Falls Episcopal's case, Grubbs and his congregation have been able to experiment with music and technology. But in another, more spiritual sense, starting a new church in a gym offers something else, too.
"You see God changing people's lives," Grubbs said. "There's something about a new church that oftentimes people will come and visit because it's new."
People who have been away from church — or perhaps are exploring religion for the first time — are less intimidated by a new church because it's all new to everyone who attends, Grubbs said. And without the traditional trappings of a church with everything in its right place, Grubbs hopes Potomac Falls Episcopal welcomes questions of faith.
"It's a little different ambiance than a stained-glass-windowed church sanctuary," he said. "At its heart, that is what the church is — people who are on a journey of faith. And that gets reinforced week after week. You have a feeling, 'We are the church.'"