"Started from the bottom, now we're here."
It's not often you sit down for a church service and the pastor quotes Drake.
Pastor Scott Klaudt was referring to Zootown Church's beginnings in a coffee shop downtown six years ago: a gathering of 15 people.
On Sunday, upwards of 2,500 people came to the University of Montana's Adams Center for Zootown's Easter service (and that doesn't include those who live-streamed the service, as well as Discovery Church in Yankton, South Dakota). A typical weekly Zootown service draws 1,200 to 1,500 people.
Adams Center Executive Director Brad Murphy couldn't definitively say this was the first time a church service was ever held in the center - it's a 59-year-old building - but it's the first time in a very long time.
The service has been in the works for six months, he said. Adams Center was buzzing Sunday morning as 200 volunteers scurried around, finalizing everything for the Easter service – Zootown's largest of the year. Adams Center staff were on hand to help with parking and other event center issues, and Voltstar Productions was working audio and visuals.
"Good morning, everyone. Happy Easter!" Pastor Kyle Smith said to cheers from the crowd. They had to delay the service because cars were lining up across the bridge, waiting to park.
"This event, us having Easter service at the Adams Center, this is not about expanding our kingdom or our name," Smith said. "We really have a heart and a desire at Zootown Church to love Jesus and to serve our community."
Half of all donations at Sunday's service are going to the Jadyn Fred Foundation, which helps families with children suffering from cancer and other illnesses.
Zootown is one of many alternative churches across the nation: a younger congregation, biblical messages told in a different way, music and themes that resonate with what's happening today.
"We're different than some of the other churches in town," said church manager Roger Flynn. "We don't do anything that would be traditional. We try to avoid tradition in the sense that we don't want to just do church to do church. We want to do church to reach the city of Missoula."
In a nearly hour-long sermon, Klaudt did just that. He spoke of the tragedies and negativity around the world, and Missoula's own problems. Murder, meth, rape.
"Everyone thinks they have the answer to fix this, but that's not us today," he said. "I'm not here to point fingers, we're not here to give our view of how to fix the crisis or fix this, and I'm not here to give a message of judgment. I am here today to give you a message of hope, a message of forgiveness and a message of the grace of Jesus Christ."
His voice cracked with emotion. He talked about his past issues with anger and substance abuse. But you don't need to be pure or perfect, he said.
"Here's the reason we don't want God. Let's be real," he said. "Here's the reason we look at the Jesus picture while he's holding the lamb, and not the Jesus picture while he's on the cross. Because we don't want to think about God, and we don't want to think about judgment, because we don't want judgment for our sin. ... God doesn't want judgment for your sin, either. He wants to take it. He doesn't want to talk about judgment. He wants to talk about forgiveness."
Book-ending his sermon were songs played by a full band. Singers belted their love for Christ to a swaying, arms-raised crowd, as the power of the band's drums and guitars reverberated through Dahlberg Arena.
Walking into the building, you would have thought you were heading to a concert or basketball game had it not been for the smiling greeters outside, welcoming everyone with a handshake and a "Happy Easter!" Coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts awaited the church-goers, and a variety of music played as people found a seat: hip-hop, electronic, folk. A countdown to the start of the service ticked on the big screen, and two other screens invited people to follow the church on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and its app.
It was a mood of organized chaos in the hours leading up to the service. Everyone was running to Flynn. An extra pack of batteries for the walkie-talkies. "We've run out of coffee cups." "Start setting up the signs for parking."
Church today means "meeting culture where it's at," Flynn said, but staying grounded "in our biblical truths."
Still, church can be unappealing and uncomfortable for non-church-goers and non-believers, he said. Zootown tries to ease that transition.
"I think churches have come to realize that they're way behind the times in terms of music, in terms of talking about Christianity," he said. "We tend to get so set in our ways about Christianity within our own Christian circles and what we call 'Christianese,' talking about faith in certain ways that we just come to know to talk about it – and that doesn't make sense to the non-believer."
"We don't do church for Christians. We do church to reach out to people in the community."