Essex church seeks sanctuary in Williston

Plans call for 168,000-square-foot building

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

A local church wants to construct a new facility in Williston that could hold 1,500 worshippers in a building bigger than a big-box store.

Essex Alliance Church has filed plans with the town for a 168,000-square-foot structure on Vermont Route 2A. It would be located north of Taft Corners, near the Meadow Run subdivision.

The new church would house a sanctuary, administrative offices and other facilities, as well as parking for 611 vehicles. Plans also call for 10 duplex units that could house church staff or guests.

More than 2,000 people consider Essex Alliance to be their church, said the Rev. Scott Slocum, the church’s lead pastor. The current facility on Old Stage Road in Essex only holds about 500 people. The church also conducts Sunday services at Essex Outlets Cinema to accommodate more people.

“We have become pretty adept at utilizing space,” Slocum said. “But the bottom line is we believe we have a lot a people who want to come, but they can’t. We turn people away every week.”

The new church would be almost 50 percent bigger than Wal-Mart’s 114,000-square-foot store in Williston.

The building is designed to be big enough to serve the Essex Alliance’s needs for decades to come, Slocum said.

“We really don’t just want to build a church for today,” he said. “We want to think about future generations.”

Essex Alliance is almost large enough to be called a “megachurch,” which is defined as a church that has at least 2,000 people attending regular weekly services. Beyond their size, such churches also stand apart from traditional houses of worship because they offer amenities such as gyms, arcades and even food courts.

But Slocum said megachurches have little in common with Essex Alliance. He said his church does not aim to be the biggest. It simply wants to minister to its congregation’s spiritual needs.

Slocum acknowledged that some people are wary of Essex Alliance’s relatively large size and services. But he said what is important is that people feel comfortable and welcomed and noted that Essex Alliance only seems big because most churches in the state are small.

“We’re only a megachurch by Vermont standards,” he said.

Essex Alliance has 250 people who have taken the classes required to become a formal member of the church. Many more, however, consider it their home church, Slocum said, with more than 2,000 people listed in the church’s membership directory.

An average of 1,400 people attend Sunday services, Slocum said. That number rises to about 1,800 for Easter and Christmas. The new church’s sanctuary – Slocum also calls it an auditorium – would hold between 1,200 and 1,500 people.

He attributed Essex Alliance’s popularity to its efforts to be relevant to members’ daily lives. For example, he recently gave a series of sermons titled “Power, Money and Sex.”

“What we are trying to say is that God has answers that make sense, that the Bible has answers that make sense in today’s world,” he said.

Essex Alliance Church is noteworthy for its informal Sunday services. The church’s Web site invites people to wear whatever they wish to services, whether it’s blue jeans or a suit. Those attending the cinema services are urged to pick up a cup of coffee to drink during the sermon.

“We work hard to make sure your experience at Essex Alliance is relevant, welcoming and not pushy,” the church’s Web site said. “Our services feature contemporary music with a live band and occasional dramas or multi-media presentations that introduce the theme of each message.”

Essex Alliance Church was formed 40 years ago, initially conducting services in a school before moving to its current site in 1972, according to Slocum.

It is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical Protestant denomination with national offices in Colorado Springs, Colo. Essex Alliance is one of three Alliance churches in Chittenden County; the others are in Hinesburg and on North Avenue in Burlington.

Slocum said the new church could include recreational fields, a gymnasium, church offices and spaces to accommodate the church’s many activities for teens, adults and seniors.

Slocum said Essex Alliance also has been forced to turn away participants from some of its more popular groups and activities, so the roomier Williston church would also help meet those space demands.

But the new church will not include a school. Slocum said schools tend to set the agenda for churches and restrict the availability of space for both church and community groups. He also feels religious schools distance churches from their communities by taking students out of the public school system.

A housing development called Brandywine was originally planned at the 50-acre site where the church would be located. The project received the town’s approval, but was unable to secure an Act 250 state land-use permit, according to D.K. Johnston, Williston’s zoning administrator.

Plans for the new church have yet to receive even an initial review by the town. The Development Review Board would have to approve the project before anything can be constructed.

The proposal may face opposition from nearby residents who have long complained about the growing traffic congestion along Route 2A, which the church could worsen.

Slocum emphasized that Essex Alliance wants to listen to Williston residents’ thoughts about the facility. He said the church is eager to fit in with the community.

“We are willing to answer any question, and we are an open book,” he said. “It’s the same approach we’ve had for 40 years in Essex. We’re very sensitive to the community."