By Brent Storms
Where to meet presents special challenges for new congregations in expensive, congested cities. Urban churches are finding solutions that offer lessons for anyone’s church building decisions.
One of the biggest challenges of starting a church in a city center or urban context is finding the right facility for Sunday gatherings. Space is limited. Landlords are skeptical. Prices are (often) outrageous.
One example of the challenges: hotly contested lawsuits have bounced from court to court over whether churches should be allowed to rent New York City public schools for religious services. Some churches have been in public schools, and then out, and now back in again as a result. A new ruling could force churches out at any moment. Imagine living with that uncertainty!
Orchard Group is focused on planting churches in New York City and in similar cities across the country and around the world. Our church planters must be resilient and creative to find good facilities to use for worship services. The way leaders of new churches in such contexts are forced to think about facility options, and the creativity they demonstrate, might prove helpful even for existing churches in suburban or small-town settings.
When coaching church planters about selecting the right facility, I encourage them to consider five factors, in this order:
1. Is it VISIBLE? Do people in your community know where it is?
2. Is it ACCESSIBLE? Can people reach the facility easily by public transportation and/or major roads?
3. Is it FUNCTIONAL? Can you seat the number of adults you expect and still have room to grow? Will it work without compromising your children’s ministry plans?
4. Does it have the right ATMOSPHERE? Will it feel welcoming to the people you are hoping to reach?
5. Is it AFFORDABLE? Does it fit within your budget?
Think about this order with me. You invite your neighbors to your new church, which meets in a rented facility. When you tell them where your church meets and they say, “I know that place,” that’s a big win from the very start. If they say, “Never heard of it,” things get tougher.
When they agree to visit and they can get there easily, that’s another win. When the church is hard to reach by subway, bus, or car, that presents an unfortunate obstacle. When your neighbors show up, if they can get their kids checked in to a safe, clean room and can find a comfortable seat, that will really help with their experience. If they can’t, good luck getting them to come back next time. It’s a bonus if the room has a cool vibe or artistic atmosphere, but probably not as critical as the first few factors.
I tell church planters they will probably need to compromise on at least one of the five facility factors. For a brand-new church aiming to reach non-Christians, the first three items are almost nonnegotiable. And if a facility meets the first four criteria, it’s worth revisiting the budget to compromise on number five. It’s an extremely shortsighted mistake to let affordability become a bigger factor than the others.
From Rental to Ownership (Sometimes)
Most new churches in city center or urban settings start out meeting in spaces they rent on Sundays only. We’ve seen new churches meet in school auditoriums, performing arts venues, older church buildings, movie theaters, hotel conference rooms, art galleries, restaurants/bars, concert halls, and neighborhood gyms. It’s remarkable how creative people in the core group can transform a temporary facility into a place that feels like home.
As a new church grows, opportunities to secure a more permanent facility expand—either through a long-term lease or by borrowing funds to purchase a building.
The church I served as lead planter in the Boston area has a long-term lease on 20,000 square feet in a massive industrial mill building. It has red brick walls and rough wood pillars and beams. It’s the kind of ambience architects of new buildings often try to recreate. It’s visible, accessible, and functional. And, amazingly, it has great character and is relatively affordable, as well.
New City Church in central Phoenix, Arizona, is six years old and already reaching more than 1,800 people! A few years ago, New City purchased an abandoned commercial building (thanks to lending from The Solomon Foundation) on the main north/south avenue that runs through downtown. It is directly across the street from the main branch of the public library, so everyone has a readily identifiable reference point. There is a light rail station right in front of the building and a parking lot in the back. New City’s renovations make the space functional and beautiful. However, the church will probably outgrow it too soon!
Missio Dei Community in downtown Salt Lake City, Utah, is seven years old and purchased an abandoned warehouse building a few years ago (again, thanks to The Solomon Foundation). It also has public transportation access, is located directly off the main north/south interstate, and has good parking. The views from the church’s windows of skyscrapers in the foreground and the Wasatch Mountains in the background are spectacular!
Restoration Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is in the process of purchasing and renovating an abandoned building (thanks to lending from Christian Financial Resources). Restoration’s new building will allow it to grow and serve its community in ways the rented space on Sundays never would.
Mission Church in Ventura, California, is reaching nearly 1,000 people every Sunday. For its first five years, the church has been meeting in an abandoned movie theater complex. With help from Church Development Fund, Mission hopes to purchase an abandoned building in its community too. Guess what? It is visible, accessible, and functional. Creative people in the congregation will give it a great atmosphere too.
Some new city churches may never own a building of their own. Renaissance Church in Harlem is two years old and reaching more than 300 people! The church has a wonderful relationship with the public school it meets in on Sundays. It isn’t the most visible church, but it is easily accessible by several subway lines. It has great space for adult worship and kids’ classes, and Renaissance has a great look and feel every weekend. Because of the trust school administrators have in the church, Renaissance is able to serve the students and teachers in a wide variety of ways. The rent is so affordable that Renaissance envisions meeting there as long as it is able. What the church is saving in facility expense is enabling it to invest in a new church starting next year in another section of Manhattan.
Unlike the churches mentioned thus far, Christ Church in Southampton, United Kingdom, was not started by Orchard Group, but it found a creative facility solution that also serves its community.
When Christ Church learned that the public library in its neighborhood was scheduled to close due to lack of public funding, it offered to keep the library open in exchange for use of the space. Now, all the bookcases are on wheels. During the week, the library is open for public use. On Sundays, the bookcases are pushed to the side and chairs are set up for worship services. Everyone wins.
Lessons for All
There are at least two lessons new churches in city settings can offer to the broader church world.
1. Always let form follow function. Ask this question: What is our mission? Then find the facility that helps your church accomplish what you have envisioned.
If your church already owns a building, it’s a good habit to ask these questions: What messages are being communicated to first-time guests by our property and our building? Are there any changes we could make to our property and our building that would improve the experience for our non-Christian friends when they visit?
Too often existing church buildings have been allowed to take on a character that sends less-than-welcoming signals to guests.
2. Enlist and empower creative people in your church to make the most of what you have to work with. New churches and churches meeting in temporary facilities must mobilize dozens of volunteers every weekend in order to transform their meeting space into an inviting place of worship. Imagine what could happen if churches in permanent facilities channeled the same number of volunteer hours toward making every worship service as inviting and welcoming to guests as possible.
The Egyptian Art Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan houses a building called The Temple of Dendur. It was relocated to the museum from Egypt. It was originally constructed in the first century BC as a place for worshipping the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris. Amazingly, carvings inside the temple show that by the sixth century AD, Christians were using the building as a place to worship Jesus Christ!
Christians have been doing this for thousands of years—using buildings intended for one purpose for the only purpose that ultimately matters. There’s no reason we can’t use our creativity and imagination to keep doing it for thousands of years to come, or until we find ourselves worshipping in Jesus’ very presence.
Brent Storms serves as president and CEO of Orchard Group in New York City.