A reporter asked me about downtown churches trying to invigorate themselves to meet spiritual needs and perhaps also to compete with modern, growing suburban churches. He had followed the ambitious recent announcement of First Baptist, Dallas, TX, to invest $130 million to build a 3,000-seat worship center, religious education building, parking garage, glass concourse, and sky bridge on the roughly six acres the church owns in the heart of downtown Dallas. This is indeed a bold move led by Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor there since 2007 (he also served as the church's youth minister early in his career). The church, founded in 1872, is rich with history. Like many well established churches, they have a “heritage wall” which I enjoyed reading on a recent visit, photo above.
Like First Baptist of Dallas, many downtown churches are older. They were often established during a time of growth, usually in a desirable location. Some move with the population, such as St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New York City. It started in 1809 in lower Manhattan, serving a largely African-American congregation. As the city grew and people in the congregation moved northward up the island, the church relocated several times until it reached its current location on 134th Street in Harlem. Other churches stayed put, adjusting with the times. Angelus Temple in downtown Los Angeles, built in 1923 and made famous when Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944) was its pastor, had only 8 parking spaces at its construction because no one felt more were necessary since “everyone” took the streetcar. That church, today undergoing a resurgence led by Matthew Barnett, no longer has streetcars coming by! (And yes, they’ve bought and leased more parking spots.)
Downtown churches making major external landscape changes like First Baptist of Dallas are rare. To my knowledge, they are the highest cost current downtown construction project in motion here in the United States.
They are certainly not alone as a downtown church in transition, however. Downtown churches with older facilities are more likely to make internal adjustments such as fixing roofs or updating windows, heating systems, sound systems or other electronics. These are often quite costly, especially for congregations that have declined in number from their heyday or that now serve a lower economic class of people. Tough economic circumstances have led to everything from creating endowments to the selling of “air rights” above the church’s facilities. Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, for example, which was founded 1871 and moved to its present site in 1914, will see two separate 60-story condo towers rise above it. Others are keeping their facility and leasing in a way that condos or office buildings cantilever over the back of the church building.
New churches are more likely to be found in growing suburbs and exurbs, but in recent decades there has been a decided trend of planting churches in urban areas as well. In Washington, D.C., National Community Church, led by Mark Batterson who launched the church in 1997, meets in several theaters across metro D.C. Mark once quipped that he’d love to see a campus in a theater near every subway stop on the D.C. metro route. Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded in 1989 under lead pastor Tim Keller, has intentionally spilled into three different locations around Manhattan. It is now building a permanent facility from a four-story parking garage it bought in 2007. But it intends to stay multi-site rather than to construct one large landscape-transforming facility. As Keller recently said, “By the end of this next decade the vision is to have three strong congregations serving a total of 9,000-10,000 people, worshipping at 7-9 locations and 12 or more services around the city, drawing many more un-churched people into a relationship with God, and with a reputation for serving and loving those in the city who don't share our beliefs as well as loving those who do.”
Sometimes a church will move across a city, such as Faithful Central Bible Church, Inglewood, CA, where Kenneth Ulmer has been pastor since 1982. The church was founded in 1936. It bought the Great Western Forum just over a mile from its current location, with initial thoughts of using it both as a church and in for-profit rentals. Across town the West Angeles Church of God in Christ, which started as a storefront in 1943, moved in 2001 one block to a 5,000-seat cathedral it had built to accommodate its ongoing growth (see photo at left).
On rare occasion a growing church will move into a city, such as Lakewood's 2005 relocation from a hard-to-access suburban location to Houston's Compaq Center. That church, pastored by Joel Osteen, is currently North America’s largest-attendance church, averaging some 40,000 people weekly for its three English and one Spanish services.
Plus a bunch of suburban and urban churches are doing Dream Centers in urban areas, an idea pioneered by Matthew Barnett, but something taking root in both smaller cities, such as Seacoast opening a Dream Center in Charleston to Higher Dimension in Houston.
Back in 1800, only 5% of the United States population lived in an urban area. Our urbanization continues to this day, with every prospect of continuing into the future. What do you predict will happen as congregations seek to make an ongoing and greater impact for Christ in our cities?
Warren Bird, Ph.D., is Research Director at Leadership Network, and co-author of 21 books on various aspects of church health and innovation.