Following God’s Heart for the Community

The holy ground beneath our feet is shifting. Post-COVID-19 America looks vastly different than before, with the pandemic serving as a jarring wake-up call for organizations, families and individuals alike. Churches weathering the pandemic began to look at their familiar and suddenly inoperable suburban campuses, surrounded by oceans of empty parking lots, and started to question the stewardship of their property and facilities.  

Churches couldn’t accomplish their ministry and service goals live on Sunday morning any more. No more gatherings with everyone in the same room, no more packed parking lots. COVID-19 called into question the long-established idea of the suburban, single-use, one-hour-per-week church campus paradigm.  

Rather than asking how they might find 30 acres of land to build a 4,000-seat amphitheater to get as many people into one room as possible, future-leaning pastors are asking how they can take their real estate and treat it as a kingdom asset. How can they give people a taste of heaven on earth by doing God’s will on their property? What if God’s heart for the community was built out in a very real, physical way? What would this property look like? 

Taking Back the City Center

“In the past, the church was woven into the fabric of everyday life,” says Charles Yi of PlainJoe Development. “Churches formed what became the town square, and businesses were built around it.

“The church is losing its grip on how it influences culture and society, because it has literally and figuratively moved away from the city center–the place where society is shaped,” he adds. “But suddenly, post-COVID, there’s an opportunity for churches to recapture the town square.”

Up until now, the model has been for churches to buy land, then build a massive parking lot, a large building, and use it once or twice a week. That isn’t scalable. 

“This is an old idea that we have an opportunity to bring back to life,” Li says. “Churches in inner city communities have been doing it for decades. Some churches have never separated the idea of church life from social, economic, and family needs. They’ve always seen those things as one in the same.”

Some churches may have an interest in meeting the housing needs of the community on their property. Options include providing senior housing, affordable housing, assisted living or apartments. In other cases, building a truly community-centric retail lifestyle center with a big, open public space—without a church building—may be favorable. 

Church Campus Transformation in Action

Churches of all sizes, from prominent multi-site megachurches to community congregations, are shifting their outlook on how their property should be used. For example, Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, is working with our team to transform their worship center into an indoor-outdoor experience. In the wake of COVID-19, Saddleback’s leadership team opted to open their 3,000-seat worship center, which boasted beautiful floor-to-ceiling glass on the front wall. 

“They wanted to reconfigure it so we could put big overhead doors on either side, and be able to house the same number of people, but spread out,” says Bruce Green, senior project director at Storyland Studios. “We came up with aircraft hangar doors that span each side of the building, creating an outdoor experience that accommodates a growing congregation and people from the community, too.” 

The changes to Saddleback’s building are currently under construction. 

In addition to Saddleback Church, our team has partnered with Willow Creek in Chicago to master plan and develop changes across all seven of their campuses. Rather than being “the church on the hill,” Willow Creek is seeking to bless the community by transforming the property it already owns. 

Our team has been working with Willow Creek to envision separate chapels, event venues, recreational facilities, childcare and coworking spaces, and connecting walkways from main intersections. The changes are meant to be highly visible, inviting, and accessible to their surrounding communities. 

Two more projects our team is involved in are with churches based in urban areas in North Dakota and Maryland. Hope Church of Grand Forks, North Dakota, owns Midtown District, an indoor retail mall that has seen better days but still offers services to shoppers and opportunities for businesses to sell their wares. The vision is to recapture the city center by providing a vibrant and exciting place for the community to gather and enjoy food and friendship all while connecting with the local church.

Oak Ridge Baptist Church in Salisbury, Maryland, purchased a big-box strip mall facing a major street, which they plan to call Oak Ridge Commons. Our team took the empty parking lot and activated it with a fun play structure and water pad to invite families to enjoy the space and welcome them into a core area where they can eat, drink, shop, and relax together with their neighbors. This aligns with the church’s mission to make their campus a place the community views as their own.

“Their hope is to create that town square,” says Freddy Martin, an executive director at Storyland Studios. “They have an opportunity to build a new town with the church at its heart, but also with things like a wedding chapel, a park for kids, and even attractions such as an aquarium.” 

I have long been an advocate for digging a Jacob’s well, rather than building a sacred temple on a hill. Humanity’s need for these gathering places and genuine conversations is much more important than ever.

Mel McGowan
Mel McGowan

Mel McGowan is an Outreach Magazine contributing editor and the co-founder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios, a multidisciplinary design firm focused on storytelling from branding to building. He also is the author of Design Intervention: Revolutionizing Sacred Space (PlainJoe Studios) and serves as an adjunct professor at California Baptist University’s College of Architecture, Visual Arts and Design.