By Mel McGowan
How’s this for a metaphor?
An old movie theater sits abandoned and crumbling on a street corner. It was originally built to bring joy and entertainment to the people of a town. But the years haven’t been kind.
Fire and poor upkeep stole its luster. Big cinemas down the street killed its business. For a while, it survived as an adult movie house. Thirty years passed, and apart from the rats, nobody wanted anything to do with The Ritz.
Sound familiar? This story could be the illustration for any sinner’s life. Yours? Mine? But it’s also the true story of a real building that’s about to get what most every sinner hopes for: redemption.
New Vintage and The Ritz
When pastor Tim Spivey of New Vintage Church in Escondido, California, reached out to me with the idea of buying The Ritz, the city’s historic art deco movie house, and restoring it as the church’s new worship venue, I couldn’t help getting excited.
There’s so much beauty and potential in the building and, from a designer’s perspective, I could see very quickly where we could recapture the original character and class of the space while renovating it for its modern purpose.
It’s one of the most ambitious projects I’ve participated in with a local church. But Spivey and his leadership team at New Vintage are eager to proceed. That’s because they approach each new ministry opportunity with a readiness to follow where God is leading and take the new routes he reveals.
“For whatever reason, God did not choose the standard models or approaches for starting or growing this church,” Spivey said. “Nevertheless, we’ve always tried to keep a ‘ready posture,’ so when God opens a door of opportunity, we are positioned to walk forward in faith.”
The Jewel of Grand Avenue
The theater is situated on a corner near the end of the historic part of Escondido, a charming downtown shopping and dining district. Although the area has a fun vibe, many businesses in the area struggle to stay afloat. This location will allow the church to make an impact right at the cultural heart of a city that values gathering together.
Every Friday night, tens of thousands of people flood Grand Avenue for a vintage car show. The city’s weekly Farmers Market is also located on the corner directly across the street. But when those events aren’t happening, the street can sometimes seem like a ghost town.
When it reopens as “The Grand,” the theater will operate as the anchor tenant for the district drawing pedestrians and shoppers further up the street past neighboring businesses that could definitely use a boost of foot traffic.
“The space we are renovating is highly visible and we believe will become the jewel of Grand Avenue in architectural beauty, purpose, and activity,” Spivey said.
More exciting than the location and beauty of this historic renovation, however, is the generous manner in which New Vintage plans to use the space during the week. The church will offer the building as an arts and performance center for the community.
The children’s worship room can become a dance studio during the week. Classrooms will become space for art or music lessons. The theater will be the church’s primary worship space on the weekends, and it will also be used for film festivals and as rehearsal and performance space for theater groups and musical acts.
“It gives us a chance to flip the paradigm,” Spivey said, “from one where the church occupies a building and tries to convince the community to come inside, to building something for the community to occupy, and inviting the church in.”
Spivey sees the church body rallying around this idea because they know what it will mean for their neighbors and those who are far from God to see a church participating side-by-side with the community.
“It’s an opportunity to be the church in a way that gains the favor of those around us and lifts up the reputation of Christ and his followers with those in our city—while clearly maintaining our firm roots in the historic Christian faith.”
As this is being written, we are working hard to convince city planners and the historical society to come out in support of New Vintage’s plans. There are challenges against the building being used for religious purposes, which we’ve come to expect. But Spivey and the church are prepared to go the distance.
“It will stretch us, I’m sure,” Spivey said, “but I can’t imagine a church better prepared to embrace its community for Christ.”
To me, this is the most encouraging and motivating aspect of the project. Returning to our theater metaphor: When The Grand reopens, it will stand as a shining light that the community will see and be irresistibly drawn to.
“We believe that the gospel of Jesus restores not only individual lives, but communities, and cities,” Spivey said. “The idea that the gospel can restore life, beauty, art, culture, education, and community back into this prominent and visible historical corner is part of what we believe God is calling us to do.”
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.