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”