Spreading the Gospel, Unleashing Compassion
By Justin Horey
This summer, as Eastside Christian Church celebrated five decades of dynamic ministry in Southern California, senior pastor Gene Appel emphasized “Eastside’s second 50 years” as much as its first. Later this year, Eastside is scheduled to complete one of the largest, most expensive, and most ambitious relocation projects ever undertaken by a Christian church—with a total project cost of more than $50 million. The church’s leaders believe the project will “carry forward the congregation’s spiritual passion by positioning Eastside for exponential impact in its second 50 years.”
Shortly after Eastside Christian Church began meeting in 1962, the congregation purchased its first property in Fullerton, California, for $160,000. The church broke ground on the site in 1964, and that campus has been Eastside’s home for weekly worship services ever since. By the late 1970s, having outgrown the original sanctuary, the church built a new, larger auditorium. A decade later, another construction project connected the auditorium and the original sanctuary (which had been converted into a fellowship hall) with an addition that included classrooms and small group meeting areas.
By 2007, the 8.2-acre site had served as Eastside’s home for more than four decades. And after nearly a half-century of faithful ministry, Eastside was not only one of the largest Christian churches in Southern California, but the entire United States—ranking 41st on Christian Standard’s annual megachurch list with an average attendance of 2,333 (including 87 baptisms).
The next year, in 2008, Gene Appel left a position as lead pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Illinois, outside of Chicago, to become Eastside’s new senior pastor. Since then, the church has grown dramatically, and now averages more than 3,500 in its worship services each week.
Just one year into Appel’s tenure as senior pastor, Eastside’s leaders began considering the possibility of relocation. The property that had been the church’s home since 1964 was landlocked, serving thousands with no more than 350 parking spaces and an 850-seat auditorium. The elders believed the church’s physical location could limit Eastside’s ability to fulfill its mission of pursuing God, building community, and unleashing compassion.
In a letter to the congregation at that time, Appel wrote, “God has blessed us in extraordinary and unexpected ways . . . and I’m convinced he isn’t finished yet.”
Seeking a New Home
In the notoriously competitive and expensive Southern California real estate market, Eastside established strict criteria for evaluating possible new sites. Any future property would be within 15 minutes of Eastside’s current campus, with good visibility and easy freeway access. In addition, it would have room for at least 1,500 parking spaces, capacity for a 3,000-seat auditorium, and room for the church to grow.
Just five miles southeast of its existing property, Eastside found a 20-acre site that met all of its criteria. The property, originally owned by Boeing defense systems, already included a two-story building of approximately 200,000 square feet, a six-story office tower—of another 200,000 square feet—and roughly 1,550 paved parking spaces.
The facilities, though massive, were not in pristine condition and were never intended for use by a church. Still, Eastside’s leaders were confident the Boeing property could be the church’s new home, and they negotiated a purchase price of $20 million. In October 2010, the congregation voted to approve the purchase—with 91 percent of Eastside’s members in favor. Eastside began a three-year capital campaign and secured a $35 million loan from Church Development Fund to cover the purchase and the first $15 million in renovation costs.
Less than three months later, in January 2011, the 1,000-member Dong Shin Presbyterian Church signed a contract to purchase Eastside’s existing property for $16.6 million. The purchase agreement allowed Eastside to remain at its original site until construction at its new site was completed, and for Eastside Christian School to use the original campus through the end of the 2011-12 school year. Most importantly, the church expected the pending sale to provide the funds it needed to complete the construction on the two-story building at its new site.
Modifying and converting the former Boeing site required extensive work. Appel put it simply: “Our project is big because our vision is big.” That vision is for Eastside to touch the lives of some 58,000 Southern Californians by reaching one out of every 100 people within 20 miles of the church’s new home—an area with a population of roughly 5.8 million.
In May 2011, nearly 4,000 worshippers attended the ceremonial groundbreaking service at Eastside’s new property. That day, Church Development Fund President Brad Dupray called Eastside “the most complicated project I have ever been involved with” in 22 years at CDF. In fact, Eastside judged the project to be too large—and too expensive—to complete at once, so it focused on renovating just one of the two 200,000-square-foot buildings prior to move-in. The interior demolition on the two-story building began almost immediately, and like so much of the project, the scale was immense. Not only were walls removed and windows added, but a large section of the foundation was removed to accommodate the sloping floor in the planned auditorium, and a gigantic hole was cut in the second floor so that the auditorium could be two stories high.
When completed, that auditorium will seat 2,700 for worship. The rest of the two-story building will include large gathering spaces to accommodate several hundred people at once, classrooms for adult connection groups, and secure children’s and student ministry spaces. Outside, a large plaza and café will facilitate informal gatherings in the space between the two large buildings.
A project of this size, scale, and scope is not without its challenges—both practically and financially. Despite minor changes and modifications to the original architectural design, the construction on the new campus actually ran ahead of schedule, exhausting the church’s construction loan from CDF by June 2012. With the sale of Eastside’s original property scheduled to close on August 1, this left the church with a two-month “gap” in its ability to pay its contractor. To keep things moving, CDF approved a short-term “bridge” loan of $4.5 million that allowed Eastside to continue funding its construction while it waited for the proceeds from the sale of its old property.
Now, with the first phase of construction nearing completion, Eastside is preparing for a grand opening by year-end. The church hopes to begin meeting on its new campus before Thanksgiving. Already, Eastside’s leaders are pursuing additional financing options—including a bond program—that will allow the church to renovate the six-story office building while maintaining substantial cash reserves.
When the relocation is complete, Appel believes Eastside will be positioned for greater kingdom impact in its second 50 years. “We sincerely believe God cares passionately about the 5.8 million people who live within 20 miles of our campus. Our dream is to reach 1 percent of them, bring the presence of Jesus into every neighborhood by serving and loving neighbors, and to multiply our compassion efforts locally and globally.”
Eastside hopes its worship attendance will double, to an average of 7,000, in the next three years. And it projects that its $5.2 million annual budget will grow by 60 percent in that same period. Yet, for as many resources as Eastside has committed to its relocation, its first financial priority is external. Appel says, “The first 15 cents of every dollar given to Eastside goes outside of ourselves. In the past four years, we have been able to give away $5.5 million to neighbors and a world in need. We dream of reaching more people who matter to God, who then enable us to multiply our efforts to the least of these.”
As ambitious as Eastside’s $50 million relocation plans are, its ministry goals—to reach 58,000 neighbors with the gospel message and to “unleash compassion” around the globe in its second 50 years—may be the most impressive. And the most significant.
Justin Horey is vice president of marketing with Church Development Fund in Irvine, California.