If you’re anticipating hallowed halls, a somber sanctuary and the hushed murmuring of Psalms, you may think you’re in the wrong place when you enter the Northway Church at its newest location that opened Easter Sunday at 1312 Central Ave. in Colonie.
You’re likely to hear “The Power of Love” pulsating from the halls, or music from a live band during services, as well as cheering from the congregation as Pastor Buddy Cremeans leads his rapidly growing flock. From his main pulpit in Malta to a second church in Clifton Park and south to the Albany site, Cremeans is reaching thousands of worshippers at services held Friday and Saturday nights, as well as traditional Sunday mornings.
“It’s been quite a ride,” said Cremeans. “We can’t get our minds around it, but it’s the message of hope that we’re sharing, and that’s what all people crave in their deepest souls. Most people have no concept of church with hope; but we’re real people with real issues. There are no perfect people here.”
The astonishing success of the ministry began in 1999, when Cremeans arrived in New York with the dream of starting a non-denominational church with a mission of welcoming families from near and far. Launched by a handful of parishioners meeting in Halfmoon, by 2002 their vision for a permanent place came to fruition when a former gym became available in the Shops of Malta. The first Northway Church officially opened later that year, immediately filling to its capacity of 400 people. In 2006, a second location opened in the Clifton Park strip mall at the southwest corner of routes 146 and 146A near the popular nightclub, Northern Lights. That location was large enough to hold about 500 people.
With worshippers arriving from across the Capital Region and as far as the Berkshires, Cremeans said plans for opening an Albany site quickly unfolded, spurred when members of the Colonie Community Church called to offer their facility for a new Northway Church.
The Rev. Matt Charde, now operations director for the Capital District Rescue Mission, presided over the Colonie Community Church for 18 years before recently retiring.
“We were an independent church, and we took a vote among our 120 members, who decided to partner with Northway Church,” said Charde. “Reverend Buddy has awesome administrative abilities and a clear plan for growth. We’re expecting great things.”
Once the decision was made, the churches merged seamlessly.
“We had a very quick ‘Extreme Makeover’ with our volunteers doing the work,” said Cremeans. “We can hold 300 people there, and we’re already outgrowing it.”
Cremeans works hard to harness two highly divergent powers to attract parishioners: the intangible, timeworn message of hope and acceptance, and the larger-than-life realm of cutting edge technology. The church Web site is slick, logos blink with flashy blue neon lights, and Cremeans’ preaching is broadcast in high definition to 40-foot movie screens in the Clifton Park and Colonie locations.
“You need to leverage technology and stay relevant,” said Cremeans. “We have video vignettes, we do direct mailers that catch people’s eyes, we do everything we can to build bridges here. Too many people think Christ-followers are the most boring people on the planet.”
The trend of making church services entertaining and joyful may be what people are looking for today, according to the Rev. Charles Gay of Albany, a retired minister who served at Trinity Christian Church in Colonie for 31 years.
“It’s appealing to the middle-aged crowd and younger folks, the ‘sight and sound’ generation,” said Gay. “As long as religion is the focus, it’s just the vehicle being used to carry the cargo.”
Gay said he applauds the work of many area churches finding their own path to carry their message.
“People think these churches are radical, but Jesus was considered radical in his time,” said Gay. “They should go and check the services out. Not every church is right for every person; some people want quiet reverence. But all across the country things are breaking loose, and giving people a choice of ways and places to worship is always a positive thing,”
Cremeans will go high-tech or retro, whatever it takes to reach more people with his message. This spring, the church will hold a five-week series on building better relationships, titled, “I Love the ’80s,” billed online as a time to “pop your collar, peg your pants, and jump in your Delorian” to go back in time.
Cremeans acknowledged that the notion of a preacher broadcasting onto the big screen may ruffle some feathers, but hopes to win those skeptics over, one at a time.
“All leaders confront criticism, but people know if you genuinely care,” said Cremeans. “When people come to the church, they feel it. Self-serving people are ultimately very transparent. That’s not what I’m here for.”
Volunteers at the three locations strive to create a community center atmosphere for kids and adults, with ongoing programs for youth and a Celebrate Recovery group meeting for “hurts, hang-ups and habits.” There are plans to move the Malta location into the historic Parade Ground District across Route 9 from the Shops of Malta in another year or two.
For now, Cremeans measures his success by the lives he has touched.
“I’ve had so many people come in and tell me this is the first church they’ve ever been inside in their whole life,” said Cremeans. “That’s the best compliment I can get. We go right back to the basics, and that’s something you just can’t manufacture.”