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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Church Plants Find Creative Places to Meet

By John W. Kennedy
Jan. 8, 2012

In February 2011, Assemblies of God U.S. Missions pastor Jeremy Sweeten found what he believes is the perfect venue for Forest Hills Community Church, the congregation he planted four years earlier in New York City: Public School 144.

“It’s located in the heart of the community, it’s a public fixture everybody knows, and there is ample space for child care,” Sweeten says of the Queens location. On Sunday mornings, the church uses classrooms in the elementary school for a nursery, preschool room and space for primary-age children. Adults worship in the cafeteria.

Each Sunday, about 20 regular attendees haul in and later pack up 30 rolling carts filled with everything from speaker amplifiers to nursery toys.

“In the long-term foreseeable future, we’re looking at paying for space, and the school seems to be most conducive to what God is calling us to do,” says Sweeten, who is a missionary to Jewish people.

When it comes to starting congregations in this country, Forest Hills Community Church is the new nontraditional reality: finding reasonably priced public space, especially in urban areas, often makes more sense than constructing a costly building. Sweeten notes that real estate prices in the nation’s largest city make purchasing property prohibitive.

National CineMedia (NCM), which manages more than 1,400 movie theaters, leases space in some of those facilities to churches. More than 2.6 million people — 13 percent of them AG — sit in an NCM theater seat to worship every week.

“Theaters are an asset that sit fairly empty on Sunday mornings,” says Barry Brown, senior director of the Fathom Theater Church division of NCM, based in Centennial, Colo. “Here’s a low-risk location in the middle of the marketplace that is readily available.”

Theaters provide a neutral, nonthreatening location for churchgoers, Brown says.

“The less money you spend on building expenses, the better off you are,” Brown says. “It’s really about where a church plant can go to meet people in the community.”

Another key factor in the church planting equation in 2012 is government hostility.

“We no longer live in a homogenous society where everyone either goes to church or thinks they should go to church,” says Brad Dacus, founder of the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) in Sacramento, Calif. “Instead, we have a rising segment of culture that is humanistic, atheistic or committed to a lifestyle that is totally divergent to the teachings of the Bible. Many local governments are dominated by these people, who don’t see value in a church.”

“Certain groups just don’t want religious views to be heard in the public sector,” says Steve Pike, AG Church Multiplication Network director in Springfield, Mo. “New church planters need to be cognizant of these attitudes that are present almost everywhere.”

In fact, such opposition is a threat to Forest Hills Community Church — and dozens of other New York City congregations meeting in public schools. An injunction is temporarily preventing the city’s Department of Education from excluding worship services. The city contends the existence of worship services in otherwise-empty schools “improperly advances religion.”

“It is private religious speech, not government-endorsed speech,” counters Jordan Lorence, Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel based in Washington, D.C. “The Establishment Clause is only a restriction on the government sponsoring religion or disparaging religion.”

In a protracted legal battle that stretches back a decade, ADF and Jordan are representing Bronx Household of Faith in the lynchpin case determining whether congregations are allowed to keep meeting in schools for worship services. Lorence, who says the opposition stems primarily from higher-level school administrators, is counting on the rationale that New York City schools allow facilities to be used by myriad other community groups on weeknights and weekends.

“One user can’t be singled out when there are other groups,” Lorence says. “What we’re asking for is equal access — that religious groups get to meet on the same terms as every other community group. The school district’s idea of neutrality toward religion is treating religion worse than everybody else.”

Nevertheless, if courts see otherwise, Forest Hills Community Church soon may be looking elsewhere. Sweeten has no contingency plans if the church is forced to vacate. The church earlier rented a movie theater, but Sweeten says sometimes crews failed to show as required to clean up soda and popcorn spilled on Saturday night. Likewise, children who met in a hallway had to contend with meandering mice.

“We just want to give stability to our people,” Sweeten says. “We want a place they can tell their friends we will be beyond next week.”


Many school districts across the nation welcome the opportunity to rent to churches on a Sunday morning when there are no school activities because it creates extra revenue in a tight economy. Lorence also notes that numerous school principals see the presence of worship services and churchgoers as a stabilizing force in helping form more responsible citizens in their communities.

“There is nothing unconstitutional about government entities renting out their properties,” Dacus adds.

However, when it comes to selling land, city and county government officials frequently raise objections because churches don’t pay property taxes, whereas residential, commercial and industrial owners do. Some local governments have invoked conditional-use permit fees that exceed even the cost of construction.

For instance, the San Diego Board of Supervisors discovered that a church had been meeting for more than 20 years on property that earlier had been zoned briefly as a tavern. The county padlocked the doors of Guatay Christian Fellowship and demanded $300,000 in “lost permit fees.” PJI intervened and a judge granted an injunction to reopen the church, but the county has countersued.

Dacus says a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in August against the city of San Leandro, Calif., is a major victory for churches when it comes to land use. The court rebuked the city for using zoning laws to stifle Faith Fellowship Foursquare Church from relocating to property it had purchased more than five years before. Justices decided that the municipality violated eight statutes of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, legislation passed by Congress in 2000 that protects churches from zoning discrimination.

“The ruling says that a negative economic impact can never be a valid reason to keep a church out of a community,” Dacus says. He is pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the city of San Leandro.

In addition to the cost of land, materials and labor, Dacus says government regulations serve as another deterrent to building a church from scratch in some locations. Environmental impact or traffic studies can delay construction for months, or longer, he says.


Pike estimates that 60 percent of new AG church plants initially meet in a rental facility, such as a school, movie theater or storefront.

Fiscally, Dacus says, there never has been a better time for congregations to purchase pre-existing structures. Some commercial buildings facing foreclosure are available for as little as 10 percent of the original price, he says.

Pike says new churches are finding favor in communities where holistic compassion services and moral guidance are offered. For instance, parents, city officials and school representatives all approve of a church starting an after-school program to keep latchkey kids engaged in productive activities rather than looking for mischief while unsupervised.

The trend toward smaller, more flexible spaces to worship is here to stay, says Pike, who predicts multi-worship sites probably will become prevalent.

“Constructing a bigger building doesn’t always make sense,” Pike says. “We need to take advantage of structures that already exist in places where people go for other reasons — schools, theaters, shopping centers.” He notes that while a traditional church building is a barrier for some people, they may have no qualms about attending a church meeting in a mall, for example.

Brown says attitudes among church planters toward building use have changed dramatically in the past decade. Early in the century, a new congregation leasing theater facilities usually embarked on a three- to five-year capital campaign to build its own church building. Now, two-thirds of the congregations renting from Fathom Theater Church view their site as a permanent location.

Brown says some theaters have birthday party rooms that double as the church nursery on Sunday morning. Rather than hallways, many Sunday School classes now meet on stage, he says.

More and more, Brown says church leaders consider it unwise to pour millions of dollars into a structure that will be used little other than on Sundays. The savings can be invested in ministry outreach, missions or in securing additional locations for multisite churches.

Assemblies of God Pastor Luke Reid launched Resound Church in Beaverton, Ore., in January 2011. The congregation now has 300 attendees at two Sunday morning services at Regal Evergreen Theaters. Reid says he is in no hurry to move.

“The sound is phenomenal, the seating is comfortable, and everyone knows where we are located,” Reid says. “It’s a great setup.”

Whatever the atmosphere in a community, Pike believes church planters must remain open-minded.

“We have a mandate to bring the gospel to people,” Pike says. “We need to keep looking for a way to move forward, even if initially someone tells us no.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor at the Pentecostal Evangel.

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