The first time Christy Thyng went to a service at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland, she knew she was in the right place.

It was a little louder and flashier than traditional Baptist services she had attended near her home in Kittery. Located in a former warehouse on the road to the Portland International Jetport, Eastpoint’s 360-seat auditorium was filled and lit for a performance. A contemporary rock band opened and closed the nondenominational service. Bible verses and song lyrics flashed on large screens above a modern stage. All of that would take some getting used to.

But Pastor Scott Taube’s preaching had an immediate and profound impact on Thyng. He delivered a welcoming sermon rooted in the pages of the Bible and spoke with love and compassion about the challenges of modern living.

She’s been traveling 45 minutes to Portland for Sunday services ever since.

“It was very clear that God was moving and speaking through him,” said Thyng, 40, a wife and mother of four. “He’s constantly sharing experiences from his own life. He’s just like everybody else. Even though it’s a bit of a drive, there’s something really happening at that church.”

Thyng and her family are among a growing number of Mainers, especially young people, who are swelling the ranks of nondenominational Christian churches across a state known for being among the least religious in America. Some are new to churchgoing. Many are trading traditional religious practices and mindsets for worship services and community outreach programs that strive to make the Gospel relevant to 21st century believers.

Eastpoint’s growth is so dramatic – a fourth Sunday service was added in April and weekly attendance has topped 1,300 in a little more than a decade – that church leaders recently announced an ambitious $7 million plan to move into a former big-box store near the Maine Mall in South Portland. From LifeChurch in Gorham to The Rock Church of Greater Bangor, similar congregations across Maine are attracting new members, adding worship services, building larger auditoriums and expanding to other locations.

“People still want the Lord, they just don’t necessarily want it in the same way,” said Kirk Winters, lead pastor of The Rock Church of Greater Bangor, which is on the verge of a $2 million expansion.

A CHANGING RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE

Growth among nondenominational congregations comes as many mainline Protestant churches – Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, etc. – and Roman Catholic churches in Maine struggle to fill their pews. Only 34 percent of Mainers say religion is very important in their lives and 22 percent say they attend worship services at least weekly, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Landscape Study. In Alabama, the most religious state, 77 percent say religion is very important and 51 percent worship weekly.

The number of nondenominational evangelical Christians in Maine is still relatively small – they make up about 1 percent of all adult Mainers, or about 10,000 people over age 17, the Pew study found. About 21 percent of the state’s population is Catholic and 37 percent belong to various Protestant denominations.

But nationally, nondenominational church members are the only Christians whose numbers appear to be growing, from 3.4 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to 4.5 percent in 2014, the Pew survey found. And while dependable comparative data on state-level memberships are unavailable before 2010, nondenominational churches appear to be growing and multiplying in Maine, from a relative handful of congregations with a few thousand members in the 1990s, to 178 congregations with nearly 26,000 members of all ages in 2010, according to the U.S. Religion Census.

In contrast, the number of Mainers who are Catholic, the state’s largest denomination, fell from 283,000 in 2000 to 190,100 in 2010, a decline that has led to the closing of 18 churches since 2006 and the consolidation from 135 parishes to 55, according to church officials.

“Nondenominational churches are dramatically on the rise,” said Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at Hartford Seminary and director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. Thumma is a leading expert and author on evangelicalism and nondenominational churches.

Outreach Pastor Kurt Holmgren leads a sermon at a recent Eastpoint Christian Church service. "We believe you should love everybody," Holmgren said, "no matter what they believe."

Outreach Pastor Kurt Holmgren leads a sermon at a recent Eastpoint Christian Church service. “We believe you should love everybody,” Holmgren said, “no matter what they believe.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Being nondenominational has become so desirable, Thumma said, some established churches are minimizing denominational ties and traditions, or dropping them altogether. Church names often include words such as “life,” “grace,” “point” and other uplifting concepts. Any connection to a denomination, if there is one, is often diminished or absent from church literature or websites.

Tracking this shift has been difficult because nondenominational churches aren’t organized under one administrative authority, though many are connected through organized affiliations, and most denominations aren’t eager to relinquish oversight of churches or report declining memberships.

“Sometimes the denominational identity carries a lot more negative baggage,” Thumma said. “Nondenominational churches are offering an alternative product in the religious marketplace. It’s a highly successful model at this point and it really is changing the landscape of religion in America.”

‘A CHURCH WITHOUT A BRAND’

Without the labels, limitations and sometimes negative preconceptions associated with denominations, these independent congregations defy easy description or categorization.

Some are being “planted” by organizations with ties to churches in more religious areas of the southern and midwestern United States. Their members send pastors, support staff and money to establish new congregations in New England, as they would for a foreign mission. Others are developing as outgrowths of churches here in Maine.

Often, nondenominational churches aim to provide greater opportunities for community involvement and increased clerical accountability in the wake of recent high-profile church scandals. Many have strong youth ministries and small groups that provide opportunities for Bible instruction, socializing and support for men, women, singles and people struggling with grief, addiction and other issues.

Church leaders are undeterred by disapproval or criticism in a state where firm belief in God fell from 59 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2014, according to the Pew study. In contrast, 82 percent of adults in Alabama have an unwavering belief in the Almighty.

They’re acting on the premise that while many people today might be “anti-institution,” they aren’t necessarily “anti-religion,” said Thom Rainer, president and CEO of Lifeway, a Nashville-based nonprofit that is the largest seller of Christian books and other resources in the world. It’s also part of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America.

Rainer is a widely known church consultant and author of books such as “Autopsy of a Deceased Church” who puts out a regular Web podcast on current issues in Christianity, and he has worked with a variety of congregations facing both positive and negative growth challenges.

“Denominational names are driving some people away,” Rainer said. “Many of the denominational churches have a negative brand. Nondenominational churches offer a fresh chance for people to try a church without a brand. I think the move toward nondenominationalism is in its early stages and it will increase.”

‘WHERE THE JOY COMES FROM’

The Sunday afternoon service at Eastpoint had already started when Patty Peterson and her husband, Larry, slipped into their seats and immediately began singing along with the rest of the congregation. The couple exuded joy throughout the gathering, smiling at each other occasionally, his arm draped across her shoulders during the sermon.

The Petersons, who live in Gorham and have two adult children, started attending Eastpoint about five years ago. They came from a mainline Protestant church that was struggling and they were looking for something more, said Patty Peterson, 61, who works as a nanny.

At Eastpoint, the couple found a vibrant congregation with members of all ages that has enriched their lives far beyond Sunday services. They especially enjoy small group meetings and Bible classes that help them delve more deeply into their faith, cope with everyday challenges and do good works in the wider community.

Locally, church members help recent immigrants, hold recovery support groups and volunteer as street pastors who patrol downtown Portland on weekend nights looking for people who need assistance of any kind. They also have missions in Peru, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti. But it’s the atmosphere at the church that grabs most people.

“It’s comfortable,” Peterson said of Eastpoint. “You can walk in and feel welcome. The Holy Spirit is so obviously alive and at work at Eastpoint. That’s where the joy comes from.”

Paul Hancock of Naples sways to the music at Eastpoint Christian Church at a recent service in Portland. Weekly attendance has grown to 1,300 in a little more than a decade, prompting leaders to plan an ambitious $7 million move to a former big-box store in South Portland.

Paul Hancock of Naples sways to the music at Eastpoint Christian Church at a recent service in Portland. Weekly attendance has grown to 1,300 in a little more than a decade, prompting leaders to plan an ambitious $7 million move to a former big-box store in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Church leaders balk when critics question their motives and describe their outreach efforts as a form of trickery or a scam to win converts and support a tax-free enterprise.

“We don’t love people to convert them,” said Kurt Holmgren, Eastpoint’s outreach pastor. “We love people because we are converted. No bones about it, we believe Jesus is the way to go. But we believe you should love everybody, no matter what they believe.”

GROWING NUMBERS DRAW ATTENTION

Eastpoint’s growth became obvious in March, when church leaders announced plans to create a “community center with a church inside” in a 92,000-square-foot commercial building that previously housed Bob’s Discount Furniture and HomeGoods chain stores.

South Portland’s Planning Board approved the project this month and Pastor Taube hopes to complete the purchase by mid-June, start renovations in July and celebrate a first service in the new church next Easter.

Financed through a Colorado-based nonprofit that supports church construction, the new church would have a 1,500-seat auditorium, a 40-seat cafe, 20 classrooms and meeting rooms, an indoor basketball court and an indoor soccer field.

If all goes well, it would be Eastpoint’s fourth move since Taube started the church in a rented movie theater in South Portland in 2004. He had been a pastor at much larger churches in Ohio – so-called “megachurches” with 2,000 members or more. He sent out three rounds of direct-mail invitations to 65,000 homes in Greater Portland. About 220 people showed up for the first service.

“I thought there was a definite need in this area, compared to the Midwest, where there’s a church on every corner,” Taube said. “And this is where the church in America began.”

LifeChurch in Gorham is another nondenominational church that’s growing. Started in the Howard Johnson’s ballroom in South Portland in 1996, it now has an average weekly attendance of 800 members at three weekend services.

Senior Pastor Brian Undlin said the congregation’s “slow and steady” growth led to the start of a second site with its own pastor in Bath in 2007. It now has 120 regular attendants who meet at the town’s senior center. The church plans to start a third site in Windham soon.

“It’s kind of a natural progression,” Undlin said. “A lot of people were driving from Bath. Now we have a lot of people from Windham. We’re kind of looking at the people God is sending us and trying to serve them better.”

The Rock Church of Greater Bangor, which grew out of The Rock Church of Greater Portland, plans to build a $2 million addition this summer to expand maximum seating capacity from 320 to 735 people, said Lead Pastor Kirk Winters. The church is already holding four services each Sunday to accommodate 1,035 regular attendants. It also holds worship services at sites in Orono and Sullivan, and it’s helping to jump-start established churches in Southwest Harbor and Washburn that had flagging memberships.

“This was our biggest year ever,” Winters said. “With the vast majority of Mainers, we have an opportunity to help them develop a relationship with Christ. We partner with people. We don’t care who gets the glory. We just want to reach people.”

PLANTING CHURCHES

Eastpoint Christian Church was planted here. Taube was recruited to be its founding pastor and partially funded by Restoration House Ministries in Manchester, New Hampshire, a church-planting organization that has started 16 churches across New England since 2000.

Dan Clymer, executive director of Restoration House, said more than 30 churches in the South and Midwest support his organization financially. They recall New England’s Puritan roots, when Harvard College was founded to train ministers, long before it became a secular intellectual bastion. They recognize the historical precedence for a religious reawakening in the region, following similar movements in the 1700s and 1800s, and they see a need to bring the Gospel to the many “unchurched” people who live here.

“They understand that New England is one of the most influential regions of the world,” Clymer said of his supporters. “They want the church to make a difference in New England because it also will make a difference in the world.”

It cost $650,000 to launch Eastpoint for the first four years, half of which was funded by Restoration House, Clymer said. Taube and his wife, Beth, along with two other couples from Ohio, raised the other half. They came to Maine a year before the first service to begin building a congregation.

It doesn’t surprise Clymer that Taube has been so successful. Restoration House seeks pastors who are dedicated to exploring and targeting the needs of the communities they serve. It encourages pastors to join secular organizations, such as the local chamber of commerce or Rotary Club, to make connections and meet people where they live. And it expects pastors to develop congregations that reflect and actively engage in the local culture.

“It’s difficult to find church leaders who are humble enough to know what they don’t know,” Clymer said. “If I believed in cloning, which I don’t, I would clone Scott Taube because he’s humble enough to know what he doesn’t know.”

That humility must be sustained for a church to remain relevant, said Jeff Tarbox, pastor of New Life Church in Biddeford.

Tarbox founded New Life in 1983 as an Advent Christian church. It became nondenominational in 1998 and now has about 1,100 members from 58 ZIP codes throughout southern Maine and New Hampshire.

At 59, Tarbox said he’s striving to stay flexible and maintain the right balance of faith and pragmatism. He believes his church exists for nonmembers who have yet to walk through its doors and he knows people “don’t choose churches based on labels anymore.”

“We’re going to work to stay relevant to the current generation rather than stay focused on mine,” Tarbox said. “If I’m not working toward that, we’re going to wake up one day and everybody in the room will have gray hair.”

FOCUS ON YOUTH, ACCOUNTABILITY

Walk into Eastpoint on a Sunday evening and you’ll see dozens of middle- and high-school age kids playing interactive games, discussing Scripture or just hanging out. The church has about 120 active members in that age group.

Its strong youth ministry is one reason Melodie Gage and her husband, Chris, decided to join Eastpoint when his job with the U.S. State Department allowed the family to settle in Scarborough after living abroad for more than 20 years.

Through the youth group, Fusion, and other adults at Eastpoint, the couple’s two children, Evan, 17, and Olivia, 14, have been surrounded by “intelligent and loving role models who look out for them,” said Melodie Gage, 55. Having that support system has been especially important in recent months as Gage battled a serious illness, she said.

For Olivia Gage, who is an eighth-grader at Scarborough Middle School, Eastpoint provides both social and spiritual grounding, in part because some of her friends at school also attend the church.

“They really connect with each age group, no matter how old you are,” Olivia Gage said. “It’s really great to know that some of my friends share the same beliefs as me. My faith gives me a foundation for how I interact with people and how I present myself in the world.”

To appeal to younger believers, many churches are embracing technology, such as cellphone apps that make it easy to download worship service programs, listen to videotaped sermons or make financial contributions. Technology is especially attractive to members of the millennial generation, born between 1980 and 2000, said Rainer, the Lifeway CEO.

Millennials also tend to be “very spiritual” and less interested in all things “churchy,” Rainer said. They’re seeking more connected, intentional relationships at home, at work and in their communities. They’re attracted to new faith experiences that include relaxed, conversational worship services and meaningful community action.

They also want pastors who are accessible and transparent about church operations and show integrity in their personal and professional lives, Rainer said. That’s something millennials share with many older church members.

“The desire for accountability has increased with each generation,” Rainer said, especially when it comes to financial matters.

While many nondenominational congregations openly seek donations on their websites and ask members to “tithe” – or give as much as 10 percent of their income to the church – some also appear to be very open about how much they collect and what they do with the money.

Eastpoint, for instance, publishes financial information in its weekly program for worship services. At its April 10 service, it reported receiving $30,286 in gifts the week before – $3,576 more than its weekly goal and just $16,424 shy of its year-to-date goal of $347,230.

That kind of transparency is important to members like Christy Thyng of Kittery. She and her husband, Matthew, who works at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, make a point of giving 10 percent of their income to Eastpoint.

They support Eastpoint’s missions, including the $7 million plan to move to a larger location, though it has come at some sacrifice to their family of six.

“We haven’t been away on a vacation since the 12-year-old was 4, and that’s OK,” Christy Thyng said. “The possibility of (Eastpoint) getting into a bigger place that can further the goals of the church the way (Taube) envisions – it’s a win for everyone.”

Christy Thyng, 40, of Kittery shares communion with her 4-year-old daughter, Makayla, at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland. "The move to a different church was a big decision," Christy Thyng said. "Lots of the churches (she and her husband, Matthew) visited were really good, but we found our spiritual home at Eastpoint."

Christy Thyng, 40, of Kittery shares communion with her 4-year-old daughter, Makayla, at Eastpoint Christian Church in Portland. “The move to a different church was a big decision,” Christy Thyng said. “Lots of the churches (she and her husband, Matthew) visited were really good, but we found our spiritual home at Eastpoint.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

DOWN TO EARTH AND WELCOMING

The contemporary music fades, the band steps out of the spotlights and Scott Taube takes the stage at Eastpoint’s Sunday afternoon service.

Unassuming in jeans and a dark purple polo shirt, Taube stands near a round, bar-height table and begins speaking about the universal battle for self-control in the face of sin. His words are measured and his tone is calm, with an occasional lilt that tugs the listener’s attention. Without the Lord, he explains, we are powerless against any challenge, whether to avoid lashing out at loved ones or to fight whatever addiction troubles us.

“It is very possible to stumble less,” Taube assures his flock. “It’s not time to take control. It’s time to surrender. Because he will take control and he will do a much better job than you or me.”

Taube describes the devil as a deceiver waiting to trip us up and the Father as a savior offering a warm embrace. You won’t hear fire and brimstone at Eastpoint and most other nondenominational church services. You probably won’t see a lectern or pulpit, either, or a clerical collar, or even a necktie.

You likely won’t hear Taube or pastors like him urging church members to vote against gay rights, or protest at an abortion clinic, or vote for a particular party or candidate.

“I spend zero time talking about the issues in the media,” Taube said. “We’re not a church with a hate agenda. We’re not an issues-based church.”

That being said, Eastpoint and similar nondenominational churches hold to the belief that the Bible is clear on the subjects of homosexuality, abortion and other contemporary controversies. Marriage is between a man and a woman, they say, and abortion is taking a life.

When church members are conflicted in any area that Taube considers sin, he will pray with them and advise them if they seek it, but ultimately he believes each individual must sort out his or her sins and find redemption in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

It’s an approach that makes many nondenominational churches seem less outwardly judgmental and more welcoming. It’s also part of a conscious effort to be part of and bring change to the communities around them.

“Haters do a disservice to all others,” said Winters, pastor of The Rock Church of Greater Bangor. “That doesn’t mean we don’t speak the truth, but we speak the truth with love and try to help people work through their issues.”

‘SPIRITUAL HOME’

Christy and Matthew Thyng attended services at several other churches near their home in Kittery before they brought their family to Eastpoint.

The moment of spiritual clarity came a little over a year ago. Their oldest child, Andrew, was one of several high school students who had taken a bus from Eastpoint for a weekend visit to Liberty University, a large Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia, which he now attends. When the Thyngs traveled back to Eastpoint that Sunday to pick him up, they decided to attend a service there, too.

“The move to a different church was a big decision,” Christy Thyng recalled. “Lots of the churches we visited were really good, but we found our spiritual home at Eastpoint.”

Now, the whole family is eager to attend Eastpoint each Sunday, Thyng said. Sixteen-year-old Madison makes sure everyone is up and ready to go on time. The hour-and-a-half round trip between Kittery and Portland has made it difficult for the family to take part in other activities during the week, such as young adult cookouts or weekend women’s retreats, but Thyng said she hopes to change that.

“The desire to be more involved is very real,” she said. “Sunday morning isn’t a drag to go to church. I look forward to it every week to be with people who believe the same things that I believe. I want more of that in my life.”