For community members Kyle and Jessica Thomas, who recently returned to the Gunnison Valley, spiritual connection and a sense of community are vitally important.

Because they have no children, the Thomases haven't quite fit into the young family scene — and are themselves 10 years removed from being college students. But they found just what they were looking for at Oh Be Joyful Church in Crested Butte.

The Thomases are not alone. In fact, the church has expanded so rapidly over the last five years — going from a congregation of about 60-70 to events hosting 700 in the summer — that a new full-time staff person was added recently. A facility expansion also is planned.

Worship leader Tyler Hansen was just added to the church's staff — leaving behind his marketing director position at Gunnison Valley Health — to take on coordination of events, music and other aspects of the membership organization. The church also is in the middle of a two-month capital improvement fundraising campaign, hoping to pay for a $2 million expansion of the church sanctuary and other upgrades. With five weeks left, the church is more than halfway toward its financial goal.

Perhaps the most recent evidence that the church is growing occurred Sunday night. The church hosted a Christmas Eve event at Mountaineer Square in Mt. Crested Butte after holding two morning services at the sanctuary in Crested Butte. It is estimated almost 500 people attended the Sunday evening event.

"We were going to have to do four or five services here at the church," said Pastor Steve Winn. "But up there we can seat about 700."


‘God just seems to be at work’

On any given Sunday, about 200 church-goers gather at Oh Be Joyful Church, located at 625 Maroon Ave., to sing hymns, listen to spiritual songs and hear a message taught from the Bible. Hansen said the congregation can expand to about 700 in the summer.

Winn endeavored to explain the exponential growth of his congregation, saying the church had no formal outreach plan. Rather, expansion has occurred through members welcoming others to join.

"God just seems to be at work," Winn said. "It feels like we're just running to keep up with what he's doing."

Members are instructed how to talk about their faith, but are not compelled to do so. They also are encouraged to get involved in community causes and volunteer their service through various local organizations as a sort of byproduct of their beliefs.

"We teach people, 'Here's what the Bible says,'" Winn said about how members are encouraged to be bold with their faith, without forcing their views on others. "You don't have to cram it down (their) throat."


‘Good news of hope’

Relationships and a sense of community are fostered among church members. They offer one another fellowship and acceptance, without an expectation of strict doctrinal adherence.

Hansen explained that while his church does not compromise on Scriptural truths, it is presented in a way which members can readily embrace.

"We come at it in a way where we don't deny the truth," Hansen said. "There is an openness of people coming together and being broken together. … We are offering the good news of hope to a world that is hurting."

Winn agreed, noting the church does not serve to judge others but to enhance the reputation of Jesus Christ.

"Church has not got a great reputation at all," said Winn. "The (truth) is that I have a problem, I don't have it together and I need Jesus."

Winn said sermons don't "water down the Bible," but that the message is "relevant without being changed."

Winn said the church is "heavily involved" with an international organization called "Young Life," which supports the spiritual growth of young people. Three Young Life groups exist in the Gunnison Valley — students at Western State Colorado University, high school students in Crested Butte, and a Crested Butte Middle School group called "Wyld Life."

The organization is independent of the Oh Be Joyful Church, yet Young Life members have attended the church on a regular basis. The church supports these groups financially and with volunteer support.

"We really believe in what they do," said Winn. "They reach into the community in a way that churches really can't. It's not 'churchy.'"


Meeting the needs of a community

Oh Be Joyful has about 18 volunteers who tackle different aspects of the church's work, but there is no real programming targeting a certain sector of membership. The emphasis is more on Sunday services — when busy people get to pause from the work week, turning to fellowship and worship, and putting resources toward what seems to be the need at the time.

"We're trying not to overthink programming," Winn said. "We're not trying to do everything. We're trying to do a few things well."

Winn said sermons are planned in advance and tend to run in 10-week series. He addresses topics such as marriage, or leaving stress for a life of peace.

Member Thomas said he and his wife enjoy the music that is played each week, which Hansen spearheads.

"As far as the Western Slope goes, I'm pretty sure there's no other place that has music like we have," Winn said of Hansen's work. "In the big cities I've seen a lot of high-powered stuff and this is right up there."

Winn said the church hopes to break ground on its expansion in April. It will double the size of the current sanctuary. Church leaders plan for the new building to meet facility needs for about 15 years.

"It's pretty exciting," Winn said. "Growth has been so crazy, if it continues like this we’ll have to have another plan."

(Chris Rourke can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or at chris.