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.
[caption id="attachment_30974" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Sojourn's Midtown campus meets this summer in the new facility for the first time."][/caption]
"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.
[caption id="attachment_30972" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="The congregation gathers at the Mars Hill Church downtown campus on Christas Eve. "][/caption]
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."
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."
Martin Swant is a journalist currently based in Huntsville, Alabama. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he has worked as a writer and editor in New York, Brussels, Missouri, and his home state of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter: @MartySwant.