By Mel McGowan
Imagine a pastor’s kid who wants to be a pastor just like his dad. Now imagine that God has a different plan. Some people are called to minister on staff at a church or parachurch organization. Some are called to be real estate developers. Darren Sloniger apparently was called to do both.
Darren, founder of West Ridge Community Church, also serves as president and chief investment officer of Marquette Companies, where he has led in the execution of more than a billion dollars of acquisition and development projects.
Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia Houston and a mutual friend of ours, once told me real estate development shouldn’t be disdained as a profession.
“Real estate is one of the most incarnational acts we can do—transforming the garden that God gives us into a city that brings shalom and flourishing to mankind,” Chris said.
I had the privilege of introducing Chris and Darren to each other, and their ministry partnership has reached beyond Houston to Latin America.
A House-of-Blues-Styled Facility
I met Darren more than a dozen years ago when he asked my brother and me to help design an unconventional “House of Blues”-styled complex in Elgin, Illinois. Darren had been part of the team at Community Christian Church, Naperville, Illinois, alongside pastor David Ferguson; he felt called to figure out a new model beyond the megachurch campus or the multisite plant. God gave him a Nehemiah-like heart for his community, and he asked, “What could a new model look like for a small church in a small town.”
Although Darren still preaches regularly at West Ridge Community Church in Elgin, he no longer takes a salary. His “tent-maker” job as an urban real estate developer provides his income. Of the hundreds of ministry clients I’ve worked with over the years, Darren is the only pastor who shares the same master’s degree as me: urban planning. His “training camp” journey has been unique. He started as an anti-apartheid social activist in South Africa, switched to public sector urban planning, and then entered real estate development, initially working for a nonprofit.
“The whole vision for the church is to create a sense of community,” Darren said. “People are really longing for that, and the church’s goal is to provide that.”
The master plan and design on which we collaborated does not look like “church as usual.” A “New Urbanist” site plan was developed that created blocks and streets around a village green surrounded by housing, but anchored on one side by the mixed-use home of West Ridge. A seven-day-a-week café is run by a third-party tenant. Garage doors open to both outdoor seating and auditorium/event space. “We hope[d] people would come into the cafe and accidentally stumble into a church service,” Darren said.
Rather than a traditional one-day-a-week facility, the 400-seat asymmetrical room looks more like a “House of Blues” club with different levels and multiple seating options, including couches and stools. It is available for concerts on weekend nights. Much of the cost of site development was paid for by condominium developers after their sites were planned and sold.
Most recently, we collaborated with Darren on Catalyst Houston, a 28-story high-rise in America’s fourth-largest city overlooking Minute Maid Park, home of the Houston Astros. We helped the city and Catalyst transform the heart of the emerging world city from a vertical office park into a vibrant, 24/7, live/work/play district. The project was built on an entire downtown block partially using $5.4 million from Houston’s Downtown Living Initiative.
“I have worked with PlainJoe Studios in both my church and my professional worlds in the creation of our church facility, as well as my latest high-rise development,” Darren said. “They were able to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular and produce extraordinary design using all the creative tools God has instilled within them.”
We were able to partner with Darren and Catalyst Houston “from branding to building” as a strategic storytelling partner, enhancing the brand identity and marketing strategy to introduce the concepts of “live inspired” and “elevated living” in the heart of a world city. Throughout the arrival experience and public spaces, Spatial Storytelling graphics were designed and employed to create an aesthetic that creates a distinctive, new, and urbane experience for living in the Lone Star State. Irma’s, one of the most popular restaurants in the city, has leased space on the ground floor, and the owner of the Houston Astros has leased a penthouse apartment with access to a private rooftop club. Potential residents will be able to do virtual tours via interactive touchscreens.
On to Nicaragua
Chris Seay introduced Darren and his wife, Shelby, to Nicaragua. With profits from his previous high-rise project in the Chicago West Loop, Darren and his wife have since built a home there and established Nica Angels to provide clean water, education, and sustainable economic development in the neighboring communities of El Transito and Tecolostote.
Blurring lines between ministry and marketplace, this Christ-centered community developer is not only living life elevated, but allowing others to do the same.
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.