Erin Burns stepped onto the stage at First United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. Her dark blond hair was tossed into a high bun as she stood alongside Leigh Justice to address the crowd of young professionals. They each spoke confidently as they shared an update on SideKicks Mentoring, a local non-profit that the crowd before them had voted into existence.
The hundreds of men and women gathered before them on the warm June evening came to the large sanctuary in uptown Charlotte for the monthly meeting of CharlotteONE, a young adult ministry run by a coalition of area churches.
Burns, 24, has attended CharlotteONE for more than two years. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she moved to Charlotte to teach at North Mecklenburg High School. She heard about the worship service from a friend and decided to check it out to meet new people.
"The sense of community is refreshing, being around so many people from the young, professional demographic," she said. "The messages are geared more toward things we are specifically encountering at this age."
In February, David Hickman, CharlotteONE's executive director, preached a three-week series titled "Unique." He encouraged his listeners to dream big and invited them to fill out applications detailing non-profits they wanted to create. CharlotteONE would choose a winner and cover legal fees to get them started. The organization collected 20 applications, and after interviewing the applicants, ministry leaders chose three finalists.
Burns was one of them. She and Justice, 27, submitted their idea for SideKicks Mentoring. They wanted to connect young professionals with high school students and build mentoring relationships through community service and social events. Hickman interviewed all three finalists on stage during a Tuesday night meeting and asked the crowd to vote on its favorite. Burns and Justice won, and SideKicks Mentoring became an official 501(c)3.
A small group of pastors started CharlotteONE in 2006 after a meeting to discuss their young adult ministries. The churches represented by each pastor all had ministries that only drew small, uncomfortable crowds.
"It's just kind of awkward," said Ross Chapman, director of operations for CharlotteONE.
Rather than continuing to struggle individually, the pastors decided to start working together to develop a citywide, young adult worship service. The five pastors appointed Hickman as leader and decided to conduct a four-week trial. For the first meeting, a crowd of 200 filled the pews. Four weeks later, attendance doubled to 400.
The pastors based CharlotteONE's ministry on John 17:21-23, where Jesus prays for all believers to be one, "so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as much as You have loved Me." They believed that a unified network of churches could reach young adults more effectively than individual congregations.
According to findings by Barna Research Group, more young adults, especially women, are focusing on careers and waiting until later in life to get married. Many of them are disengaging themselves from traditional church environments. CharlotteONE hopes to engage young professionals in a relationship with Christ, doing the targeted legwork as a unified ministry that connects attendees to area churches for ongoing discipleship.
The Tuesday night meetings, conducted weekly during the fall and spring and monthly during the summer, may feel like a church service, with contemporary worship and messages specifically geared to a younger age group, but traditional observances like communion, baptism and small groups are purposely left out. They don't want to compete with local churches, they want to empower them, Chapman said.
"We are not a church, and we don't ever want to be a church," Chapman emphasized. "We are not a parachurch ministry either. What we are doing is founded and leveraged by the churches in Charlotte."
Six years after the ministry hosted its first service, CharlotteONE has 48 church partners.
Last month, Burns and Justice invited the CharlotteONE crowd to get involved in SideKicks Mentoring. After completing their 501(c)3 paperwork and launching their website, Burns and Justice had started matching students with mentors. Burns read from a stack of student applications in her hands. One student lost her mom at 4 years old after her dad shot her. She said she looked forward to having a positive mentor in her life.
"I've always wanted to do some kind of educational non-profit," Burns said later. "This has been on my heart for a few years. Funding has been the main thing that has been holding me back, and seeing how God worked it out has been really cool."