By Mark A. Taylor
We wanted experience from church leaders who have led their congregations to build. We were able to spend an hour with four who brought insight and a couple of warnings for any congregation considering a building campaign:
Gene Appel, senior pastor with Eastside Christian Church in Anaheim, California;
Gary Johnson, lead servant with The Creek in Indianapolis, Indiana;
Darrel Land, senior minister with Redemption Christian Church in Jasper, Indiana; and
David Vaughan, senior minister with Whitewater Crossing Christian Church in Cleves, Ohio.
Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Tell us about your last building project.
Appel: We went through a full relocation in 2012 from Fullerton, California, where the church had been for 50 years, and moved to what had been a former Boeing Aerospace site that we repurposed in Anaheim. It was a $56 million project.
Land: About two years ago we finished the construction of our worship center, about a 1,100-seat worship auditorium, a $3 million project. In December, we completed the build-out of an old retail space a few miles up the road for our first multisite campus. That was about a $1.8 million project.
Vaughan: We’re still finishing up the build-out of offices and classrooms and student ministry space in a building we opened this past December. That new facility includes a 1,200-seat worship center and an all-new Harbortown Kids area. It was a $13.5 million project.
A grant from a local Christian patron allowed us, at the same time, to construct a life center to house our food pantry and recovery programs. It was approximately a $600,000 project. In the first half of this year, we have been repurposing current worship space into student space, new offices, new classrooms, and more restrooms.
Johnson: We just opened our first satellite last September. It is housed in a former fitness location, a ladies-only gymnasium. Reconfiguring it cost us about $1.8 million. Now we’re repurposing the gymnasium on our main campus into a new office complex.
How has your church’s personality, your “DNA,” influenced your decisions to build?
Land: Community and fellowship is very important at our church. So every building we design has a large, oversized gathering space/lobby. We’re a large church in a small town, where community and connections are very important.
We’ve also focused on creating incredible children’s space. This allows us to offer something unique in our area.
Since ours is a rural community, it was important that we didn’t build something looking too extravagant, because that probably could’ve been a turnoff for many of the people we’re trying to reach.
Vaughan: We were the Westwood-Cheviot Church of Christ before we moved here in 2004. In the years since then we had continued to add services, and we agreed we needed more worship space. As we approached our 100-year anniversary in 2016, that seemed like the right time to build again. It was a strategic time to look toward a new beginning even as we celebrated the past.
Appel: We’re a simple church with a simple strategy. We pursue God, we build community, and we unleash compassion. We wanted our campus to reflect and help attendees experience all three values.
So our worship space, obviously, is a “pursue God” space. We designed it so that wherever you’re seated in the room, you’re looking at other people, not just at what’s happening on a platform. We wanted there to be a sense that we’re doing this in community together. Like Darrel, we really concentrated on creating large gathering spaces in our hallways—I like to call them freeways, they’re just huge—where people can gather.
We were very deliberate in creating great environments for our children’s ministry, for the benefit of the kids and reaching their families. We have a coffee shop called Compassion Café where visuals and other elements reflect the global and local places where we’re involved in compassion and mission works.
Johnson: It took us a while to determine to do a multisite because we have 60 Christian churches in Indianapolis. Where do you put another satellite? We looked long and hard for a neighborhood that not only was lacking a church, but also had a demographic that was a match as near as possible to ours at The Creek. Once we found that, we went looking for a building and designed its interior to fit that neighborhood. We wanted it to be a seamless part of the community.
So, your decisions to build were all mission driven, correct? Mission not only prodded you to build, but helped you determine what to build.
Appel: Eastside had been out of space for 25 or 30 years. And when the economy took its big dip in 2008, that really afforded us the opportunity to relocate. What was a bad time in many ways was a good time for us, because we were able to hit the bottom of the California real estate market at just the right time. I don’t know that we could have done it now. I don’t know that the church could’ve done it five years earlier. But it was just the right timing.
Vaughan: For us, the initial driver was to dream new dreams in a new space. I felt like the congregation needed a reboot in a brand-new location. The old space contained memories that were not conducive to new vision.
But it was a risk, 10 years ago, to ask a 90-year-old church to invest $7 million to $8 million and move eight miles away when there was no momentum and dwindling attendance. The church was without debt, and the move put us back in debt. But it was the greatest thing that happened to the church.
We used the relocation as a way to help people decide whether they were all-in, to reenvision the church, with a new name and a new identity, all of which led us to become a healthier church.
Appel: In the month after I came to Eastside, we grew rapidly. We were at five services, and we felt like we were maxed out. Although we believed multisite was in our future, we also felt we needed to relocate first before we considered that.
We, too, needed a reinvention for the next chapter of Eastside, to establish and create a new DNA for the future. So then, when we would go multisite (we have three sites now), we would be replicating that new DNA and that new sense of health in the church.
But some churches out of space would say let’s do multisite now.
Appel: We were going through fundamental shifts in our philosophy and strategy of ministry. We felt our former location was built for different strategies and a different era. We felt the new location, designed much more simply and much more strategically, would better position us to be a multisite church in the future.
So what have you learned that would help you with the next building?
Land: We found that repurposing retail space is just a whole lot less expensive than building from the ground up, if it’s possible. This is a growing trend.
Appel: We saved a great deal of money by remodeling the existing structure we bought. And we’re very thankful we also have room to expand. Here in Southern California, there wasn’t property to buy. Property here is $1 million an acre, and it’s already all developed. We had to find something that had already been developed. It really wasn’t an option if we were going to relocate.
Appel: I’ve been through three large auditorium builds, a 3,000-seat auditorium at Central Christian Church in Las Vegas and then a 7,200-seat auditorium at Willow Creek outside Chicago. Here, we built an auditorium that initially had 1,800 seats; we’ve expanded it to 2,200 now, and it can go as high as 2,800. I think with the multisite model’s effectiveness for us, I’m glad we can look at more sites versus just building larger.
Land: I would certainly echo what Gene said. I’m glad we didn’t build a larger auditorium. It’s a large auditorium for our area, the largest auditorium in our county. But we didn’t go larger because we knew multisite would someday be our vision. And we didn’t want to wrap all of our money up in an extra-large auditorium and not have room to grow and reach people in other areas and other parts of our region.
The first time we built, we used a capital campaign company. I don’t have anything bad to say about them. In fact, they taught us how to do a capital campaign. But next time, I think we will run the campaign from within.
Johnson: Twelve years ago we built a worship center that accommodates 1,500, and we’re very glad we did not build larger than that. We have 50-plus acres of land we’re now trying to sell. With the move to multisites, we know we’re not going to use all that land.
Vaughan: Our church has done back-to-back-to-back capital campaigns with only one year of break between them. Our people don’t know what it’s like not to be in a capital campaign. It stretched their faith, and it’s been good. But it’s not for the faint of heart.
So were you energized or exhausted by your church’s building campaign?
Land: I heard a preacher say one time, building programs don’t cause major problems, but like a pregnancy, they can reveal problems already there. I’ve been blessed because I’ve had good people running our campaigns.
Johnson: Twelve years ago we needed to borrow some of the funds to build that auditorium. We said back then that we wanted, from that time on, to wait till we had cash before building. And we have done that.
It’s a commitment we have made to the church family. No more capital campaigns. We decided to teach our people about tithing. Every year, in the last four to five years, we’ve done a four-week series that’s very direct on helping people get their financial house in order. We create a discipleship program, whether it’s Financial Peace University or some other mechanism, by which people can receive a lot of frontline help to move them toward debt-free living.
As a result, for example, this last November when we did our series and we handed out commitment cards, about 74 percent of our people said they were tithing and more. We have seen our giving transform before our very eyes.
Does this mean we must take longer before we build something? Absolutely, and our people know that. It took us a little over two years to build the children’s center. It took us about 15 or 16 months to do the rebuild of the satellite. But, when we open it and we dedicate it, the people are on their feet cheering when they hear there’s no debt associated with that project.
Appel: The traditional capital campaign, whether it’s a two- or three-year campaign, is so demanding on the senior leader and his wife. In our 2011 three-year campaign, I had 70 one-on-one meetings with individuals in our church and I don’t know how many smaller group meetings. Then there were all the preaching and vision casting and public events that go with that. It takes a tremendous toll.
My hope is we don’t have to do any more capital campaigns in our future. Like Gary, we’re trying just to teach good biblical stewardship through strong four-week series every June. And then we also do a year-end giving emphasis in December. We’re planning budgets every year that are smaller than the previous year’s giving, So, if we meet or even exceed the previous year’s giving, that’s creating margin for us.
Johnson: Paul said he had learned to be content, and I think we have that possibility of learning to be content. And it’s not only with regard to our personal finances but also with regard to the house of God. Gone, as we have said, are the days of the mega-mega worship centers, the Joel Osteen gathering places.
When we want our people to learn to be content with driving an older car, with having fewer pairs of designer jeans in their closet, so that they can be generous with people who are living broken and disadvantaged lives, we need to reflect that in terms of the house where we worship.
Appel: We just keep casting vision. So, what is our vision as a church? Who are the people we want to reach? Often I’ll say, “We’re going to move as fast and as far as God provides the resources.” So, we’ll keep casting the vision, and as God provides the resources through his people, we’ll move farther. At whatever level God’s people respond, that’s how fast and far we’ll move. That kind of responsibility really resonates with people.
Land: Once or twice each month we show a video called “Completely Generous” during the worship services. It illustrates where the money is going and the good it’s doing in our community or overseas. We’re hoping to move people from being new givers to occasional givers to regular givers to radical givers. We agree that a grasp of basic stewardship principles will help us meet many needs and goals.
How did building affect growth for each of you?
Appel: When we left our former location (in November 2012), I think we were averaging about 3,300 at the time. The last five weeks in a row we’ve been over 8,000. That includes 7,400 at the Anaheim site, plus our multisites.
Vaughan: We started with about 300 people when we moved here about 10 years ago. We doubled overnight and had 700; so we doubled in size when we moved. We then systematically tried to double again. We had close to 2,100 last weekend. With our recent opening in December, we’ve been up 20 to 25 percent year to date from last year.
Land: When we opened up our worship center, we had been averaging about 800 to 900 people; sometimes we’d bump up to 1,000 but then go backwards. After we opened up that worship center two years ago, we grew dramatically right away to 1,100 or 1,200, and then 1,500. And then with opening a multisite campus in Loogootee, this past Sunday we were right under 2,000 people for about the fifth or sixth Sunday in a row.
But haven’t some churches been hurt because they built? They went into debt they couldn’t afford. They built more space than they could fill. Five years later, we’re looking at caverns of space that aren’t being used. So, what do you know that they didn’t know? How can we protect others from that kind of fate?
Land: There were probably other factors that caused such churches not to grow. It wasn’t necessarily that they did or didn’t build. It was that there was a moral failure, a leadership struggle, a split, or some other major problem.
Appel: We spent a year in prayer: discussing, evaluating, considering whether to move forward with the relocation agenda or not. And in that time, we received lots of wise counsel. We spread our net wide, talked to many well-informed people. I think that’s part of it, not making the decision too fast too soon, getting lots of valuable input from experienced counselors. We were looking at the momentum we had and what would be the cost of not locating.
There’s always that tension of, Are we moving by faith or are we out on a limb of foolishness? Some disappointments could be avoided with the wisdom of much good counsel.
Vaughan: Often the issue isn’t church building but church health. I don’t think a new building will cause growth, but I think poor church health will kill growth. Lack of space, once you get momentum, will kill it. As I talk to people, or people call us, I say focus on the church health and eventually the church growth and the building will take care of itself.
But I think I hear you saying that your decision to build was a process in increasing health.
Johnson: I believe that many times we venture into decisions without being prayerful, without really going before God. Asking the church, the leadership, would you pray? Would you fast over this? Before we enter into a significant investment of resources and time, could we go before God and see how he could provide?
For example, Traders Point Christian Church in Whitestown, Indiana, recently opened a satellite downtown. Somebody in their church family wrote the check for the building. I believe many times we have not because we ask not. We run ahead and we trust the bank to write the check rather than ask God to provide the funds, selling some of the cattle on a thousand hills. It might sound naïve, but I’ve seen it happen.
I would just urge churches to spend time prevailing in prayer before God for both wisdom and resources. If he says move, I believe God will take us in a direction where he can empower us and provide for us.
Land: Make sure what you’re building is a tool for the mission and not the mission itself. The mission is to reach people and to grow people in their faith.
Vaughan: It’s not about the building, and it’s not about the money, even though we must talk about both those things. It’s about investing in changed lives.
Mark A. Taylor is editor and publisher of CHRISTIAN STANDARD.