By Scott Eynon
Wayne Smith spoke at the 1997 Florida Christian Convention and made a comment about his church’s growth—Southland Christian Church, Lexington, Kentucky—that moved my church to take action. Wayne said, “Since they’re not making any more land, we decided to buy as much as we could.”
That made sense to us. I’ve served as senior pastor with Community Christian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, since 1994. Our church had been experiencing consistent growth, but we had just 3.65 acres of land and an auditorium that would seat about 275 people.
Our church is about 20 minutes from the Everglades, and they do regularly make more land in South Florida, entire cities in fact. They just fill in the swamp! But they weren’t making any more land right around us. So in the fall of 1997, our leaders prayed about the decision to buy some land around the church for future growth.
The morning after a time of prayer, a for sale sign appeared on the piece of land we were praying about. Talk about a quick answer to prayer!
Over a period of about one year—from fall 1997 to fall 1998—we purchased three different pieces of land totaling a little over 12 acres adjacent to our building. All this additional land was zoned residential, so we knew it would need to be rezoned for church use. We thought there might be some challenges in rezoning the land and we were right. We were more right about this than we ever wanted to be!
In the summer of 1999, we submitted an application to the city of Plantation to rezone the 12 acres of land to construct a 45,000-square-foot multipurpose building adjacent to our existing structure. We received strong opposition from the Plantation Acres Homeowners Association, the most powerful association in the city. The primary reason for their opposition was predictable—traffic impact on their quality of life or NIMBY (“not in my backyard”).
We endured a challenging and very public rezoning battle for many months. Our rezoning effort was covered in the local newspapers and on TV. We were told the rezoning decision attracted the largest crowd ever to attend a city commission meeting. The crowd was about equally divided between supporters and opponents.
Our church is in a densely populated county (1.8 million people) that is almost completely built out. Despite this nonrural reality, our church is in a horse farm community with some of the last remaining larger tracts of land.
One resident who opposed us at the city commission meeting said, “this land is for pastureland, not pastor land.” He got a good laugh from his supporters, and I just had to shake my head and laugh with them. The August 2000 meeting lasted until 1 am and ended in a denial for our rezoning request.
In one sense, we were very deflated, but in another, we saw God was very much involved in the “no” decision. We believed what Corrie Ten Boom said, “You can trust an unknown future to a known God.”
As a church, we again prayed for God’s direction. We seriously considered two options. The first was reapplication, hoping a scaled-back expansion plan might be acceptable to the city, and perhaps, the neighborhood.
The second option was relocation to another city and building there. We considered both possibilities for many months. A land team met with leaders from other cities about possibilities of relocation. Doors that appeared to be open would suddenly shut, so we just waited on God.
Simultaneous to this, we were working on the reapplication option. A few months after our denial in 2000, congress passed legislation (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) that prohibited cities from arbitrarily restricting churches from developing their properties as we felt the city of Plantation had done with us. We contacted groups such as the Rutherford Institute and Liberty Counsel to game-plan a strategy of reapplication using this new legislation.
With this law our reapplication stood a greater chance of success, but we worried this option would be difficult, drawn out, and ultimately be resolved in court after many years of appeal. Also, as a church, we did not want to bruise the neighborhood and city with our unwanted expansion plans. We seriously considered the potential negative impact if we pursued this course of action.
During a three-year period, more doors opened and closed, until we finally purchased 15 acres in 2003—that’s a huge parcel for South Florida—in the city of Tamarac. Our new location will be just six miles away, at a heavily traveled intersection with visibility from the expressway. Our new campus is under construction and we have a target move-in date for this April. Woohoo!
Seeing God at Work
Our nine-year expansion journey is not one I would have chosen, and yet God’s timing is perfect. We can look back and see God’s fingerprints all over this journey. He has led us each step of the way, even in the rezoning denial. The land we purchased in 1997 skyrocketed in value to five times what we paid for it, allowing us to buy new property with much greater access and visibility. We would have never been able to afford this land back in 1997, but God had bigger plans for us.
Our church has continued to grow during the past nine years. Our significant space challenges during this time have pushed us to hold five worship services on Sundays. As we added each new service, we challenged our church family to shift to another service that was not convenient for them, because lost people matter to God.
One of our mantras through the years has been, “It’s hard for spiritually seeking people to find God if they can’t find a place to sit or a place to park.” Each time we added a service, our church responded sacrificially and came at odd times and parked off-site to make room for new people.
We have already established a wonderful partnership with our new city. Early on we met with the mayor and city manager and asked how we could serve the city. They said, “You want to do what?” We replied, “Serve the city.” We explained we’ve been an externally focused church for years and we want to partner with the city and serve the community.
Since that meeting, we’ve had an unbelievable relationship with city leaders. Late last year more than 400 people in our church participated in a Great Day of Service, partnering with agencies and organizations in our new city, and other areas of South Florida. We have a night-and-day difference in our relationship with our new city, embraced now because of our decision to serve.
Joshua is one of my favorite biblical characters and leaders. I especially identify with him at the end of the long period of wandering and waiting. Right before the children of Israel were to enter into the promised land, Joshua said some of my favorite words in Scripture: “Joshua told the people, ‘Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you’” (Joshua 3:5).
After nine years of waiting, it looks like tomorrow is almost finally here for us!
Scott Eynon is senior pastor with Community Christian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida (www.communitycc.com).