Why Young Churches Want Old Buildings

The story of St. Vincent de Paul, a Roman Catholic church in Louisville, Kentucky, is like many others in our age of changing religious and economic dynamics. Cornerstone laid in 1878. Slowly abandoned as the neighborhood deteriorated into one of the most dangerous in the United States. Finally sold. But here the story takes an unexpected turn, because the building has recently enjoyed a $4 million makeover from a young, vibrant, and growing congregation.

Sojourn Community Church began meeting in an arts center in Louisville’s Germantown neighborhood before it purchased St. Vincent de Paul a few years back from the local archdiocese. The upgrades signal a multifaceted effort by Sojourn to trust God for spiritual and economic renewal in this inner city neighborhood. In fact, Sojourn is one of several prominent churches across the country undertaking multimillion-dollar renovation projects to breathe new life into historic churches or other structures, instead of building a contemporary big-box.

Sojourn's Midtown campus meets this summer in the new facility for the first time.

“I think it’s a wonderful thing to kind of reclaim, restore, and renew a place,” said Daniel Montgomery, Sojourn’s lead and founding pastor. ”I think it’s a picture of the gospel as well that Christ is making all things new, but at the same time I think people love contemporary. Are people attracted to old? Yes. Are people attracted to the contemporary? Yes. We want to make it really clear that we are not the first to step into the scene. We are just one of many in this larger story.”

Montgomery said Protestants often have a low view of church buildings. That has changed over the past decade, as many churches grow to appreciate the role of art and beauty. For better or for worse, a space can shape a person or a person can shape the space, he said.

“I think a lot of it is platonic dualism between sacred and secular,” he said. “We make false dichotomies where the scriptures don’t actually have these dichotomies.”

When Sojourn began looking for a new facility a few years back, it wanted to remain rooted in the same inner city neighborhood. But finding a building was difficult until the local archdiocese put St. Vincent de Paul up for sale for $500,000. The church celebrated its first post-renovation service in late August. Within months of purchasing the building, Sojourn received a $2 million gift toward the project.

“It really was a confluence of factors,” Montgomery said of the decision to purchase the aged building. “It was timing in our history, proximity in our current location. It was definitely the beauty of space. I remember being in seminary 13 or 14 years ago and they said: write down your ideal worship experience. I remember writing down walking into a cathedral where there is solid expositional preaching. It’s very surreal to me, looking at dreams that were on my heart years ago that came together.”

Tool, Not a Goal

Churches in Seattle, Kansas City, and St. Louis have also recently completed or are working on renovation projects. Mars Hill Church in Seattle celebrated a grand opening last Sunday as one campus officially moved from the city’s Belltown neighborhood into one of the city’s oldest church buildings, First United Methodist Church. The facility, where several of Seattle’s founding families once worshiped, was nearly demolished years ago until the Washington Supreme Court decided in favor of a lawsuit to keep it standing. It was eventually sold to Seattle developer Kevin Daniels for $32 million.

The congregation gathers at the Mars Hill Church downtown campus on Christas Eve. 

A couple years ago, Mars Hill began looking at moving closer to the heart of downtown and approached Daniels about First United Methodist, according to Tim Gaydos, Mars Hill’s lead pastor of the downtown location. At first, Daniels wasn’t interested in selling the property, but after many conversations with Gaydos about his vision for Mars Hill’s role in area, he agreed to lease with the possibility of purchasing.

“We developed a great foundation in Belltown and saw Belltown really flourish through the ministry of our people,” Gaydos said. “Now that will continue, and we can replicate that in many other neighborhoods in central city. I’m pretty excited about it.”

A 2008 survey by LifeWay Research found that “unchurched adults”—those who hadn’t attended a church, mosque, or synagogue in the past six months other than for holidays or events—are more turned off to utilitarian buildings. More Americans prefer a medieval cathedral to a contemporary church building. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, at the time said the findings surprised him, but suggested the look of a Gothic cathedral was more likely to connect visitors with the past.

“A church building is a tool and not a goal,” Stetzer told me. “When choosing a tool, you need the right one for the right job. As such, I’d be discerning in what kind of church will help advance the mission of the church in the community. For many churches, they’ve found older mainline church buildings to be such a tool—connecting them with the community, its history, and even with a sense that the (big-C) Church did not start when theirs did.”

David Gobel, an architectural history professor at Savannah College of Art and Design, says churches—like civic or commercial institutions—are “building public statements about their identity” when they build a building.

“According to John Calvin, the chief principle governing public worship is decorum, a concept that describes how we are to behave, dress, and, I would add, build,” Gobel wrote in 2011. “Decorum is a general principle that encompasses propriety, gracefulness, dignity and, yes, beauty. Indeed, these are the qualities that should be sought in church architecture. The dignity, decorum, and beauty that we seek in designing places for public worship should extend to the external witness of the church.”

Ultimate Beauty

Redeemer Fellowship in Kansas City is still in the process of a project in the city’s Westport neighborhood. The church moved into the building when it began in 2009 and is now in the middle of a capital campaign. The plan is to go beyond the $1 million deferred maintenance needed in the beginning and to raise another $2 million to renovate the sanctuary and other areas.

Historically, evangelical churches in Kansas City have left the urban core and moved to suburbs, according to Redeemer’s sexton, Joshua Murray. But Redeemer wanted to plant in the city center to see the whole city renewed.

“One of the core values of our church is beauty, and the sanctuary is certainly beautiful,” he said. “It’s an ancient structure with high-level craftsmanship, which we think is beautiful. The rest of the building is pretty utilitarian, pretty plain, and built with a different ideal. We believe the structure should be beautiful, so we’re not only going trying to help it function better, but it also reflects the beauty we see in the gospel.”

Conversation about beauty often becomes a conversation about worship, according to Andy Bean, head of Redeemer’s strategy and implementation. He said the church’s passion for space is built from a desire to point to the ultimate display of beauty.

“Because that’s the thing about a building, or work of art, or even a sunset in the mountain,” Bean said. “You can engage beautiful objects or spaces, but they don’t ultimately satisfy your longing to encounter beauty. Beauty is designed to point to something beyond itself, and in that sense our passion for space is born out of a desire to have every aspect of someone’s experience with Redeemer point them to Jesus, as the one who is sufficiently and ultimately beautiful.”

  • http://www.lumberingbrown.com Aaron

    The only “left behind” paradigm I’m waiting for is the one where liberal denoms leave behind old church architecture for young church plants. Especially in small towns and inner cities…

  • Steve Leach

    I think you are confusing Shelby Park with the Smoketown neighborhood, which was listed as the 14th most dangerous neighborhood in the U.S. by neighborhoodscoutreports.com. The rankings, however, based on FBI statistics and 2008 census information, were obviously skewed by the fact that Smoketown had quite a bit of crime centered on the Sheppard Square housing projects and a relatively low population compared to other neighborhoods on the list. As a Sojourn member who has lived in the Shelby Park neighborhood for several years and Vice-President of the Shelby Park Neighborhood Association, I can wholeheartedly affirm that this neighborhood’s reputation (often based on stereotypes and misinformation such as that in this article) is grossly undeserved. In fact, if you’re ever in Louisville, we invite you to spend some time in our Urban Oasis and see for yourself! Thanks.

  • Norman


    Thank you for a great article!

  • http://www.thekingsfellowship.com Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    Awaiting predictable ‘church buildings are stupid’ comment…

  • Jared

    I understand the connection between beauty, worship, and the Gospel. But I question the need to spend millions of dollars on architecture when there are broken people and broken systems that much more desperately need it. After all, only wealthy churches can afford multi-million dollar church buildings, and thus the money only goes to serve the already-wealthy.

    Can anyone see beauty in that?

    • Chris

      Jared, I don’t see how this “money only goes to serve the already-wealthy.”

      For example, the neighborhood that Sojourn moved into is anything but wealthy. To cite just a couple statistics, according to oldish (2008-09) data the median household income was 24k/year and single-mother households came in just under 24%.

      A simple drive (in-person or via google street view) through the neighborhood reveals that Shelby Park, though not a wretched hive of scum and villainy, is surely not a wealthy area. There are many “broken people and broken systems” in the blocks surrounding the building.

      So yes, I do see beauty in that.

      • Jared

        Hi Chris,

        Thanks for your comment. I believe you when you say that the neighborhood is not wealthy. But I think that actually proves my point – the church is not representative of the community at all. Median household incomes under $24K/year cannot support multi-million dollar renovations. It is far more likely that a church in this situation is filled with wealthy folks from the suburbs. I’m not saying this is always true, and may not be in this case, but it’s more than likely.

        Further, renovating an old church building does not equal serving a poor community. Job training programs, child tutoring centers, supplemental food pantries, free or cheap day care programs for single mothers, etc., are a few hastily thought of ways to serve a poor community. I am sure holes can be shot in all of these examples, but my point is that there are much better ways to spend millions of dollars than on architecture. I’m not saying there’s no place for a building like this, just saying that there must- there must- be wiser ways to spend this money.

        Finally, I’d be interested to know what people who live in this community think of the church’s renovation in the context of it being there to “serve” them. Do they feel loved, and do they want to know Christ because a congregation spent millions on refurbishing original mahogany wood ceilings?

        Forgive me if I seem curt – this is not my intention. But is all of this really in keeping with the spirit of the New Testament? Think of Jesus, with no place to lay His head. Think of Paul, who encouraged us to “have this treasure in a jar of clay.” Think even of current believers in other countries who do not have access to a hundredth of the resources we have access to.

        In this context, can we still call spending money this way beautiful?

        • Steve Leach

          I think you are well-intentioned but you are speaking out of ignorance. This article is not an all-inclusive look at Sojourn or Shelby Park. There is no mention of the quarterly free medical clinics, fall festivals, mercy/benevolence ministries that help with bills, pay for funerals, advocate against eviction, help folks move and more (not to mention informal support of neighbors by individuals and community groups), counseling ministries, multi-congregational prayer meetings, members who serve on the neighborhood association board, those who volunteer at the community center, organize street clean-ups and community art projects. You didn’t read about Sojourners who evangelize the lost, take meals to their neighbors, give rides, do yard work, bake cookies, go Christmas caroling, host barbecues, witness and care for women in the sex industry, and the list goes on. Work is beginning on a housing initiative/urban missionary training program that will seek revitalization both physically and spiritually – your emphasis on spending suggests that you see finances as the cure for the ills of the neighborhood. As to the church not being representative of the community, I think you are mistaking the median income as absolutely representative of all incomes. This community is a mixed-income area, ranging from those living in our many homeless shelters and halfway houses, to professionals (lawyers, engineers, business owners, newspaper editors, etc) and all levels in between. Shelby Park is a very small neighborhood and there are around 50-75 Sojourn members living here who represent the full financial gamut, much like our neighborhood. We are less representative racially than financially, to be sure. I would challenge you to ask the residents, Community Center staff, police department, and other churches if they feel served by those of us who live here, and the church in general. If you are as interested to see what our neighbors think as you say, then come to Shelby Park and ask around. And before you go knocking the money spent on a building, please understand that many from this neighborhood would simply not venture the 200 yards or so (literally on the other side of the tracks) to our previous facility but are now willing to attend services at St. Vincent’s. There is always wisdom to be gained by the church in all areas, including finances, but you seem to be insinuating that our elders acted in an unwise and un-Christian manner when moving forward with the facility and that our congregation is not loving our neighbors. The former is a very serious charge and the latter is simply untrue. I wholeheartedly invite you to come and look at our church and our building in context and see if it is devoid of beauty.

          • Jared

            Thank you for your response. I appreciate it and everything that your church does for the community of which it is clearly a part. By my comments I do not mean to denigrate Sojourn or offend anyone there. You are correct, I do speak out of ignorance, as we all do most of the time. I would ameliorate my comments only by suggesting that I meant them generally, not specifically, even if Sojourn became a target because it was mentioned in the article.

            But as your experience in Shelby Park has shaped you, my time spent living in India has shaped me. The context I am writing from gives me a litany of difficult circumstances as well. I have held a dehydrated woman laying on the side of a street to die saved only by strangers and the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta. I have seen a man lying, living in, and eating trash for days. I have touched a living man’s arm eaten to the bone by maggots with not so much as an aspirin to alleviate his pain. I have seen a local pastor try to feed his family and run a ministry off of $25 a month. I have seen countless children with no parents and no hope begging on the streets, only to turn in what they “earn” to their “masters” at the end of the day. I have walked through red light districts filled with women enslaved to their beds and their madams and their debt.

            I say this not to make myself seem like a big deal, nor to exploit the misery and dignity of the world’s most vulnerable, but just to make the point that I cannot fathom the amounts of money discussed in this article. They are like mountains to me. I cannot reconcile the man who ate trash with these mountains.

            I do not know your neighborhood, your church, or your elders, and I do not claim to. What I do know is what I have seen, and my own struggle to match the finances of the West with the misery of the world. I of course agree with you that finances are not ultimately a “cure” for any neighborhood, but this does not mean that finances are unimportant.

            It is for these reasons, with the utmost respect to you for your comment, that I stand by mine.

            • Nick from Australia

              True beauty lies in the now resurrected and ascended, but still creaturely, Jesus Christ. I daresay that that the aesthetic beauty found in so many buildings has some kind of nexus with Him. However, I’d suggest that we need to hold loosely to other created objects of beauty, for there is a long history of loving them too much and Him not enough. I found Jared’s comments to be an helpful reminder of the extreme wealth of the west; where consideration of church architecture can be considered to be a weighty matter. Thanks Jared and big prayers too for the work of gospelling the neighbourhood in Sojourn and Shelby Park.

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  • CharlieJoeClark

    Nowhere in the scriptures do you see God/Jesus coming out and condeming the Jews for having a temple…and Paul and others never once mentioned that meeting in a dedicated “church” building was wrong, or that money given to build one was wrong…in fact, scripture doesnt say anything about where the “church” meets, be in a home or a nice looking building.

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  • Brian Sam

    Another way to entitle this story (while going a little deeper) would be to call it “Old Churches Look for New Buildings.” That’s certainly the story of Mars Hill Downtown Seattle. Unmentioned by the author is that the First United Methodist Church of Seattle took its $32 million prize for its property and built a sparkling facility near downtown with a parking garage, human service space and energy-efficient, modern sanctuary. They’re set for the next 100 years with a building whose costs are low and advantages are high — particularly since they’ve plunked themselves down in a dense residential neighborhood (the same one Mars Hill left behind).

    On the other hand, Mars Hill Downtown got this: a crumbling building with seismic issues, a plumbing system that needs major overhaul, huge heating costs, inconvenient and expensive parking, a large distance to residential neighborhoods and now the news that they’ll have to move since the building’s owner/developer has plans to convert the old building to a hotel ballroom and restaurant (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-02-13/seattle-s-tallest-tower-in-two-decades-to-house-sls-hotel.html). Mars Hill has benefitted hugely from the publicity around its move, but sadly it’ll soon be back in the search now for a new home after spending thousands of dollars on this temporary fix.

    I think it wasn’t just “beauty” that attracted Mars Hill to the location. It was also the sense of historic roots that rootless and transitory people long for and don’t find in a black box evangelical start up like Mars Hill.

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