When church planters begin public worship, most find a school that will make its cafeteria or auditorium available, with perhaps a couple of classrooms for the nursery and children’s ministry. Others find a Seventh-Day Adventist Church that will rent its facility to a fledgling congregation. But as the Lord blesses the congregation and it attracts more visitors and members, most churches will need to find a more permanent space to call home.
But where should those church plants go? Should they build a new building, purchase an existing building, or find a new landlord? The answers are as varied as the PCA churches facing the decisions, and most pastors will describe it as a journey of faith. However, the process of finding a new facility is one the Lord uses not only to build the faith of the congregation, but to clarify the church’s mission in its community.
Big Plans with a Small Focus
As church attendance wanes in the U.S., so does church construction. According to a report by Axios, construction spending on religious facilities reached a record low in June 2021. During the same period, construction surged on amusement and recreation facilities, office space, educational facilities, and even sewage and waste treatment plants.
At the same time, church buildings around the country are sitting empty. As Jonathan Merritt noted in a 2018 piece in The Atlantic, churches with dwindling congregations but growing building expenses often feel forced to sell their spaces to the highest bidder, who then transforms the building into condominiums, an Airbnb, or a restaurant.
Some of these churches become a space for a new church that can move in and bring life to an ailing edifice. When Joshua Reitano set out to plant New City Presbyterian Church, he focused on reaching just one Cincinnati neighborhood that the church could bless.
Two things he didn’t count on: One neighborhood would be too narrow in scope; and that the church’s growth would be explosive. The church quickly expanded its parish to five neighborhoods and moved from holding evening services in another church to renting space from an elementary school. After nearly five years at the school, the arrangement was no longer working. During the elementary school years, the church grew from 70 or 80 adults and 20 children to 200 adults and 100 children. The weekly demands on volunteers for setting up and tearing down and the constant scouting for space for mid-week activities became a drag on the church’s energy and resources and risked straining the relationship with the school.
As the church considered its options, it began negotiating the lease of an 11,000-square-foot warehouse to convert into a worship space and multipurpose room. At the time, the warehouse seemed like plenty of room for what the church needed.
The elders then learned that a Presbyterian Church (USA) building was going up for sale within the church’s neighborhood radius. Reitano reached out to the church about purchasing the building for New City. It took some work to build trust with a congregation that didn’t agree with all of New City’s conservative theology, but eventually New City was able to purchase the 22,000-square-foot property for a fraction of its value.
Though a bit run down, Reitano said the property is beautiful, and the church is blessed to have it. But even 22,000 square feet isn’t enough for New City. The number of children in the church has again doubled to 200, so the church raised $1 million to renovate the existing structure and add more classrooms.
As the building turns 100 this year, Reitano plans to launch another capital campaign to add still more classrooms and areas for fellowship. “One hundred years ago, people made an investment to bless this neighborhood,” Reitano says. “Now it’s our turn.”
Building a Monument to God’s Faithfulness
Over in Alexandria, Virginia, real estate is so expensive that churches struggle to find new spaces, and building a new facility is out of the question. But Alexandria Presbyterian Church (APC) knew that its arrangement as a tenant of Del Rey Baptist Church would not continue when the 25-year lease expired: the Lord had blessed both congregations with more attendees, and both churches needed more space.
What these stories have in common is congregations committed to prayer, following where God led, and reaching their communities with the gospel.
Ten years before the building needs arose, APC established a long-term planning committee to figure out where the church might go next, but even more important than the planning committee was establishing a pattern of prayer and fasting to actively seek the Lord’s guidance. The committee examined all options, including looking for another landlord and shrinking the congregation by planting a daughter church, but no option seemed satisfactory. Tom Holliday, APC’s senior pastor, said the committee couldn’t find a church that would rent to a congregation of 500 like APC, and while the church valued planting churches, church leaders believed God was leading the church to continue growing.
The committee met with several churches about renting and talked with two churches that wanted APC to purchase their buildings, but none of these leads seemed like the right move for APC. All these setbacks demonstrated to Holliday that “God was preparing us for something bigger.”
After praying and fasting, meeting and discussing, the church concluded that God was leading them to build. One mile away from Alexandria Presbyterian Church sat Alexandria Bible Church, a congregation that had prayerfully decided to close its doors. The church sat on 1.6 acres valued at $6 million, but ABC sold it to APC for one-tenth of its value.
Though the church now had a property to purchase, APC still needed to raise the money to demolish the existing building and build a new facility. In 2019 the church launched and completed its $15 million capital campaign before the pandemic changed how churches operate and the cost of building projects. The church hopes to move into its new building in March 2022, the same month its current lease expires.
The Building Made for the Church
A short distance across the Ohio River from Cincinnati sits Bellevue, Kentucky, a bedroom community for those working in downtown Cincinnati. In 2020, after years of moving through the northern Kentucky area, Grace and Peace Presbyterian Church found a home there.
For the first few years after its founding in 2007, Grace and Peace met wherever it could find a space — a school, a realty association, or another church — but it didn’t have a sense of rootedness to any one community. In 2013, it began leasing space from Main Street Baptist Church in Florence, Kentucky, a community about 12 miles southeast of Cincinnati.
The arrangement worked well for Grace and Peace, and when they learned that Main Street Baptist planned to sell the building, the congregation began a capital campaign to purchase the property. But Main Street Baptist sold the building to another congregation.
Lee Veazey, pastor of Grace and Peace, said the church kept exploring any and every property it could. In November 2019, a church member learned that a Lutheran congregation in Bellevue planned to put its building on the market. Two property committee members saw the property on Friday and showed it to Veazey on Saturday. The session and property committee met on Sunday and made an offer on Monday. Later that afternoon, Veazey learned the church’s offer had been accepted.
“Even though they could have gotten more money from other potential buyers, they took our offer because they wanted the building to continue to be used as a church,” he said.
Grace and Peace moved into the building in early 2020, but the pandemic hindered the congregation getting to know its new neighbors, especially in the early months. Initially Veazey was concerned that owning a building would lull the church into a sense of complacency, but the church is gradually learning its new community and developing a vision for blessing it.
More important than the planning committee was establishing a pattern of prayer and fasting to actively seek the Lord’s guidance.
“By God’s kindness thus far, the building has not become a burden, it’s still a blessing. Hundreds of people live within a five-minute walk,” Veazey said. He hopes Grace and Peace can transition from a church that attracts out-of-town attendees into a church attended largely by those within walking distance.
Each story of finding a building is unique, but they often have common themes.
Both APC and Grace and Peace started searching for a new facility before the church had an urgent need for a new one. Such preparation was wise. Planning in advance helped the churches avoid making desperate, costly mistakes.
What these stories have in common is congregations committed to prayer, following where God led, and reaching their communities with the gospel all for God’s glory.
“Planning is good,” Holliday said. “But it takes lots of corporate prayer.”