Church of the Resurrection and The 100-Year Gamble: Is it time for a new large church strategy?

 

COR new sanctuary

A few weeks ago Rev. Adam Hamilton, Sr. Pastor at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection (COR), in Leawood, KS, unveiled the church’s plans for a new $90 million add on/renovation to their already expansive church campus.

You can read a great in-depth article about the building plans over at the Kansas City Star.

You can also visit COR’s official website dedicated to the project called “10,000 Reasons.”

The plan calls for a new worship center that’s a bit smaller and more intimate than the current space, but far more aesthetically pleasing, with future plans for a 600-seat chapel and improved contemporary worship center. The new center will have a futuristic arena look to it and will include a gigantic stained glass window that can be seen from the freeway.

Rev. Hamilton estimates that the investment will create a facility that will stand for at least 100 years and that the church will be able to increase the pace of churning out disciples and mission dollars. He estimates the ROI that pays out mission dollars to be $5.6 billon, over the 100-year span. This is an impressive number, and from a raw dollars standpoint makes the initial $90 million a more than worthy investment.

There are, however, a few assumptions being made here:

1. The church will still exist in 100 years.
2. The church will grow at the current and perhaps at a faster pace during the 100 years.
3. The demographics of Leawood and surrounding areas will stay the same over the next 100 years and COR will adapt to any changes, as to not slow down membership growth.

100 years is a really, really, long time, folks.

There are, however, at least four really good cases to be made for this building project: Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter.

Apple is about to plop down a massive new campus, the centerpiece being a gigantic “spaceship” ring-shaped building. The interiors of these buildings go beyond utility and functionality and promote creativity, innovation, and collaboration between employees. They certainly aren’t your grandparent’s office spaces made up of mundane cubicles and corner offices. These companies tend to push against the notion that Millennials aren’t interested in institutions focused on big buildings and expensive overhead. These companies show no signs of slow-down and will only need more and more office space for their employees.

These innovative corporate giants have built and continue to build the facilities that fulfill their day to day needs, but they also act as monuments to their own success. And that’s where things get tricky.

The Star article points out that some think that the massive COR undertaking may be a bad idea:

Some are doubtful about the century notion.

“You tell me,” says Dave Travis, chief executive of a national church growth consultant called Leadership Network, “how many things around Kansas City have been standing since 1914 and are still vital to the community?

“Where I live (Atlanta), they built a perfectly good dome for the 1996 Summer Olympics. And it’s getting blown up next year,” he adds. “That’s just what happens anymore.”

To be sure, in a throwaway age of changing habits, new technologies and, among many young adults, skepticism toward big religion, who knows if crowds will still show up for worship services in the early 22nd century?

It certainly feels like COR is not seriously considering the social and cultural trends away from religion, particularly institutionalized religion and especially churches with large and expensive buildings. Recent history also suggests expansive and expensive building projects may be shortsighted.

Before mainline denominational institutions began feeling the sting of decline in the late 1960’s/70’s they were counting on a perpetual state of growth, building bigger and better buildings and campuses to house their current members and anticipate new membership. However, almost as soon as the final bricks were laid, the trend reversed and churches slowly found themselves with buildings build for thousands of members that are now worshiping hundreds if not only dozens, as their cathedrals crumble around them. As the US becomes less religious, is this what is about to happen to our mega-churches, as well? In an increasingly electronic and crowdsourcing world, do we need these huge facilities anymore? It’s hard to lead and grow, however, if you’re constantly concerned that you may be riding a growth bubble. To not do so could be devastating to your movement. You have to build up to and beyond your capacity. You have to lead with a mindset of growth. But do we have to do it the way we’ve always done it?

There’s also the strong case that the rising popularity of urbanism makes against building large suburban church buildings. What may turn out to be a silver lining from the great recession is the move back to our urban cores. At their height, the suburbs were attractive for their inexpensive houses, great schools, and low crime. Yet, they also came with adjustable rate mortgages, unaffordable utilities, high block walls, six lane streets, community disconnectedness, big box stores, earth tones, chain restaurants, painfully long commutes, and huge gasoline bills. Millennials and other urban minded folks have since found their way back to the urban center, opting for walkability, public transportation, bike lanes, knowing their neighbors, local bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, unique music, and art – much more interesting and sustainable ways of living. These are folks who brag about how long they’ve gone without getting on a freeway or eating at an Applebee’s. Churches, including COR, have figured this out, at least in part and are planting new churches or starting satellite campuses in our downtowns. COR’s downtown Kansas City campus is even finding success among millennials. is  For the most part, however, these feel more boutique projects than they are re-thinking of an overall strategy. The largest and most long-term investments are still being made in the “burbs.” (However, Mars Hill Seattle seems to have adopted an urban strategy, which may partially explain their continued growth, although they have different problems to deal with).

Will we watch as the suburbs begin to drain and people walk away from the stadium churches and shopping malls in search of a more compelling life in the cities? Perhaps we’ll watch as the suburbs take a cue from the urbanists and begin to implement urban planning concepts into existing and future suburban communities. One such planned community, around a new Apple manufacturing plant  in suburban Phoenix plans to do so. Could churches also recognize these cues and take the lead on re-inventing the way we gather, in sustainable and adaptable ways?

On the surface, this is the right move for right now and for the immediate future. But will it last for 100 years? That is something that is difficult to predict. Indeed, there is a strong chance that in 20-30 years, COR may find itself with a very expensive weight around its neck. Don’t get me wrong, this has not been an argument trying to stop COR from going forward with this project. The capital campaign will be completed, construction will commence, and there will be much fanfare at the ribbon cutting in a few years. I’m not questioning anyone’s motivations, integrity, or COR’s ability to make disciples and give mission dollars. What I’m interested in exploring, however, is the question of how much longer the large campus strategy has left? Are these just retirement homes for baby boomers, or will these types of facilities indeed have a 100-year impact? Are there other innovations we should be thinking about? In other words, planning for having an impact as far as 100 years into the future is the right kind of thinking, but it also needs the right strategy.

Perhaps then, this is a call to reflect on our necessity to build monuments to ourselves. Perhaps this is a call to, for once, pay attention to how we focus on not just what’s right in front of us, but be leaders and visionaries for what the future of what the church is becoming. Will it be a future of bigger and better buildings? Or will the future of how we gather be one where our spaces are more mobile, sustainable, portable, virtual, organic, adaptable, and recyclable?

What are your thoughts? Do large permanent facilities still make sense for the church today? Do they make sense for the future as a way to accomplish our mission? Let’s do our best to keep the comments related to “large church, large facilities” vs. other innovative approaches for growing congregations. Again, this isn’t about criticizing COR and/or Rev. Hamilton. Thanks, team!

UPDATE: Here’s a follow-up post based titled “We Don’t Have to Do it The Way We’ve Always Done It: Church growth and blue sky thinking

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  • http://www.martycauley.org Marty Cauley

    I am not sure “bigger is better.” Having just returned from touring England and seeing massive Cathedrals that stand essentially empty, it is obvious that buildings do not disciple believers, believers disciple believers. I have said more than once that I’d never build another building (I’ve done a couple of campaigns) if there are existing ones that can do the job. The investment in multiplying disciples may be better spent investing in people instead of projects.

    That being said, Adam Hamilton is a smart and careful pastor and I don’t see him as a typical “kingdom builder.” However in this culture of consumerism, it would seem that flexibility and viability over the long term are intricately tied together. A gorgeous building that becomes the anchor to the organization can quickly turn a movement into a monument.

    • nathanmattox

      Good questions Rob. I like how you’ve organized the ideas here. What wise and cautionary words from Marty as well “A gorgeous building that becomes the anchor to the organization can quickly turn a movement into a monument.” On the other hand though, I think the decision to make a beautiful and long lasting facility is a bit of a corrective to the temporal and meaningless “convention center” look of many (most) of the large churches in America. How has that ecclesiology influenced Christians? Many see worship as a performance rather than a participatory event. COR has resisted that trend though, and now looks to build a sanctuary.
      As the “curator” (*you remember that conversation in seminary, Rob?) of a church facility that is 80 years old, and built for a much larger crowd than we have today (400 can fit into my sanctuary, average of 1000/week worshiped here in the 40s-50s, and we regularly have around 125 now) the task of maintaining the building is a large but important one. While I see the point that it might drain resources (maintaining a large building is quite a task) it also provides the needed space for new ventures: we’re able to host an ESL school in our facility for the many international students (25% of the student body) coming to Tulsa to attend TU’s petroleum engineering program–and showing hospitality has become one of our “defining disciplines.” Also, the beauty of a building that was built to last continues to draw people who simply come to see and “find a quiet center” as the song we’re singing this week in worship goes. For that reason, the fact that the stained glass at COR will be able to be seen from the freeway stuck out to me. It could be that the “urban digital culture” becomes passe and out of date as well in the future, as seems to be happening now with suburban life. Perhaps future generations will have “pixilation overload” and people will resume wanting to simply get together in the flesh again.

      • http://www.robrynders.com/ Rob Rynders

        I think the internet and technology are playing a big role in how we connect with one another, however, I believe face to face gatherings are still relevant and in demand, they just can’t be replaced, no matter how good the technology. How and where we gather, however, is changing. I’d actually argue that suburban and mega church campuses widen the gap between relationship and community building. People are moving to urban cores because of the gathering spaces – the coffee shops, bars, restaurants, parks, community events, and so on. They’re moving there because it’s easier to meet people and to get to know your neighbors. Even though it seems counterintuitive, there’s an intimacy in a place where you can walk to everything and interact with people every step of the way. That type of community is hard to create in the land of, driving everywhere, large parking lots, franchises, and mega malls. Can the church be the leader in how we be community together or do we just keep building mega malls?

        • nathanmattox

          I hope the church can be a leader in how we be a community together–perhaps that is one of the last bits of relevance we have left for this polarized world. And, as to the original question, “is it time for a new large church strategy?” your last question answered your first in Rabbinical fashion. Again, I see the design plan for COR’s new project addressing some of the issues you raise in the above paragraph. 78 mil goes for a new, smaller and more intimate sanctuary where people “shall see each others’ face” and a narthex that is built around the concepts of gathering spaces, etc. The rest goes to renovate the old sanctuary into a new fellowship hall, a kitchen (which COR doesn’t presently have), and classrooms. (all community building improvements on the present facility–just think what the absence of a kitchen means–everything catered? No parishioners cooking together, washing dishes together?) A parishioner remarked in the comments in the KC Star article that all that will make walking from sunday school to the sanctuary easier, leaving more time for conversation and socializing–all this leads me to the conclusion that the new building and renovations are addressing the exact issues you raise, with the exception of the fact that the “main campus” is located in the suburbs. As for that, not everyone can live in the “urban core” for a variety of reasons, and what this design seems to do to me is lift some of the urban core experiences and replicate them in the facility. The suburbs aren’t going to just “go away.”

  • Joey

    I think this is very risky. First, I currently serve one of the churches spoken of in this post that built during the boom days in anticipation that things would only continue to grow. Fast forward 50 years and we still have a decent size worshiping community but not nearly the size anticipated by those who dreamed big. I don’t fault them for dreaming big at a time when the church building there were in was busting at the seems. They had no way of knowing that this area would change so much in the 70′s and 80′s with folks moving out to further suburbs as this area became more urbanized. Today we live with the reality of a giant building much bigger than we need that we have to continue to maintain and that is a huge expense that takes away from what we would rather spend on ministry. So my first word of caution would be you never know where things will be in 50 years. Make second thought is that Adam Hamilton has been a great leader for COR, building something truly amazing, but he will not always be the pastor. I know in the UMC we try to stave off the cult of personality and this is partly done through the appointment system. I however have doubts that Adam will ever be moved to another church. And the truth is that no matter how hard your try it is hard to separate COR and Adam Hamilton. So what happens when he retires? He will not make it to 100 years from now. Someday they will have a new pastor. How many mega-churches fall apart after the building pastor is no longer the pastor. Not saying that this will happen but I think it has to be considered when dreaming for the next 100 years. Also not trying to say they shouldn’t do it but that these would be my reasons for hesitation.

  • Duane Anders

    I have built buildings in the burbs, Multi-function kinds of sacred spaces, lived under the Mike slaughter idea of Mission not mortar. Now I serve in a huge building “Cathedral style” built over 54 years ago. First UMC Boise built a 1000 seat worship space when the town had 30,000 and the church averaged 300. Now 54 years later we have added to the space and worship over 1300. Have there been ups and down over those 54 years yep. My thinking has been challenged. Are there times and places where this is a good decision? Boise is not an over churched city:225,000 in city limits and 4 UMC’s. So one large building is not a bad thing. Will it still be needed 40 years from now?
    I wish I could hear Rev. Herb Richards (who had the vision)tell the story of the why build this building…”the Cathedral of the Rockies” back then. Was it great vision? Was it ego? Herb did not serve his entire career here.
    I do not know all of the details of COR’s build? How much $ do they have at hand? If they do not build what is the impact? How does the move of ST Paul Seminary connect to this build?
    I do love the vision. I do believe there are places for all size churches. I do believe God can do a 100 year work, but that most church buildings have a life cycle.
    Is it a bad thing that the Crystal Cathedral is now A Catholic church? I do not want to build empty albatrosses for the next generation so perhaps we must lead with greater vision when the building no longer serves the mission of the congregation…let it go. my thoughts….

  • http://liturgynerd.blogspot.com/ theliturgynerd

    A relevant question … Of course, CoR is taking a lot into consideration. With the St. Paul partnership, they need more campus space to account for students. They also know how to reach the non-churched folks better than many with their brand of evangelism. Is it risky? Oh yeah. But they’re being faithful as a faith family.

  • lmchitwood

    In all this talk of demographics and urban / suburban planning it occurs to me one thing is missing… God. I’m certain Adam Hamilton and many many members of COR have been praying intently and intentionally about this plan. However, I believe this may just be an opportunity for them to ask folks outside of their Church to pray with them.

  • http://carlthomasgladstone.com Carl Gladstone

    While reading I realized that our local mission destination (Motown Mission) benefits from a 100-year building strategy from the last century. Metropolitan UMC in downtown Detroit is an amazing structure, built when that was the largest Methodist congregation in the world. Now it still stands even as the membership has dwindled. But the church has claimed new life for this building by making it available for housing mission teams. I suppose it helps that this building is located in the city center, and in a city now reknowned for its “economic disaster recovery” needs. But, it is really the ongoing discernment and elasticity of the congregation that have made this amazing resource – built for different initial goals – available to be used for ongoing mission. Maybe that’s the question we need to keep asking. Not “Is this the right construction decision for all time?” but rather “Will you be faithful to God’s call in this place and with this building even when the time’s change and new strategies become necessary?”

    • nathanmattox

      Great point, Carl. And lovely example of a church with a large facility adapting to the new normal of a smaller population and fewer resources.