Why One Church Is Constructing Community Centers Instead of Church Buildings
by Melissa Meyer
On any given day at Faith Church’s Northend Community Center in Lafayette, Indiana, you might find someone swimming laps in the indoor pool or running on a treadmill in the fitness center. You might see a group of people learning how to fix a bike at the Repair Café or to create beaded rings in the Makers Studio. You might find someone recording music or a video in the recording studio (“you bring the idea; we’ll bring the gear and the training,” the church says). You might even see a few friends enjoying coffee and donuts inside Flour Mill Bakery and Café. But on Sunday mornings the scene is always the same: people from the community gather at 11:00 to attend a Faith Church worship service in the gym.
Northend is the third community center that Faith Church has built to meet both the physical and spiritual needs of the 118,000 people who call Lafayette and West Lafayette home. All three community centers serve as campuses of Faith Church, with worship services held on Sunday mornings.
The idea to build its first community center was born in 2005, when Faith Church, not for the first time, found itself outgrowing its space. Faith Church had already relocated once, in 1986, and expanded its building several times between 1996 and 2002. Experiencing even more numerical growth in 2005, the church planned to build a $10 million megachurch structure. That’s when the church’s leaders “pressed the pause button,” says Jonathan Smith in his article “Who Are We Building For?” in Ministry Tech magazine. Smith is director of technology for Faith Ministries, the overarching ministry of Faith Church.
Looking at that $10 million price tag, the leaders realized they would be building an auditorium that would sit vacant six and a half days a week. The leaders asked themselves, Is this really the best way to serve our community? So rather than constructing a building for itself and inviting the community to use it for a few hours on Sundays, the church constructed a building for the community to use every day of the week, and the church uses it for a few hours on Sundays.
Faith Church planned its first community center “around the needs of our community,” Smith says, by incorporating responses to a citywide survey the church had created. The resulting building, finished in 2007, was a transformation of the church’s existing facility into the East Community Center, featuring gyms, an indoor pool, meeting rooms, a preschool, a café, an outdoor park, a skate park, walking trails, and a fishing pond. The facility is an ideal place to “relax, work out, meet, play, or serve,” the church says. It’s also an ideal place to hold a church service.
“Let’s face it,” Smith says. “Church can be held anywhere. . . . A community center is the perfect place for a church. The gyms are used for worship space, the youth room is used for youth group, the meeting rooms are used for small groups or Sunday school or adult Bible fellowships, and the preschool is used for children’s ministries and the nursery.”
After the success of East Community Center—and desiring “to continually impact its community in creative and constructive ways”—Faith Church built another one, this time in West Lafayette, in 2013. West Community Center offers some of the same amenities that guests will find at East, but West, located one mile from Purdue University, is also home to Purdue Bible Fellowship. Student Kendra Stevenson says she first attended Purdue Bible Fellowship to make friends. But she kept attending, she says, because she “found a relationship with God, and a family of believers that pursues [her] daily to grow more like Him.”
On the second floor of West Community Center is affordable housing. The two- to five-bedroom apartments are popular living quarters for Purdue students who agree to the housing development’s membership covenant. Faith Church even offers to match roommates with one another based on a profile questionnaire.
In September Faith Church opened its third community center. The newest building, Northend Community Center, is “an example of what compassion, collaboration, and coordination can achieve,” the church says. Located in an urban area of Lafayette that has been declining, this facility goes even further than the first two to serve its community.
To understand how to best meet the needs of residents on the north end of Lafayette, Faith Church talked with leaders of nonprofit organizations working in that neighborhood. “We kept hearing the same thing: a lot of great people doing a lot of great things, but all of them feeling under-resourced, all of them wishing they could build a new facility, all of them wanting additional amenities to better serve their part of town,” Viars told IFF, a nonprofit lender that aided the construction by providing New Markets Tax Credits. These tax credits, IFF explains, “stimulate investment and economic growth in low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities that often lack access to the private investment needed to grow businesses, create jobs, and sustain healthy local economies.”
IFF “helped us make our resources go a lot further,” Viars says. “And as we’ve learned, when you start using your resources to love your neighbors, it’s just infectious.”
“When you start using your resources to love your neighbors, it’s just infectious.”
Northend Community Center includes not only gyms, a pool, and other fitness amenities, but also an auto repair shop for people experiencing financial hardships, a shelter for homeless families, a senior center, and (in what IFF good-naturedly calls a “nonprofit mall”) a coworking space for 13 nonprofit agencies.
“The synergy and the cooperation” of these services and agencies will allow Faith Church to serve its neighbors “at an entirely different level of coordination and efficiency,” Viars said at the grand opening of Northend Community Center Sept. 16. Three thousand people had gathered that afternoon to help the church celebrate. In a few moments they would take a scavenger-hunt-style tour of the facility, meet staff members, and visit the rooftop hockey court. But first Viars addressed everyone at the building’s entrance.
Standing in front of a mural wrapping around a corner of the building, Viars told the crowd, “Strong communities find ways to make resources available for everybody in the town to enjoy life, to make healthy choices regardless of their zip code, regardless of their economic status, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of their family makeup . . . so that nobody in the community is left behind. . . . We’re better together.”
The mural that Viars stood in front of captures the faces of 19 residents of Greater Lafayette. Viars had commissioned Rahmaan “Statik” Barnes, a street artist from the South Side of Chicago, to paint this striking work of art. “I am amazed at the talents the Lord has given Rahmaan, and the way he and his team pour their hearts and souls into works of art like this one,” Viars says.
Viars had learned of Barnes on a brief trip to Chicago when construction of the community center was just starting. Viars was buying time in Chicago, waiting to pick up someone from Midway Airport, when he came upon a building’s mural.
“What caught my attention was how Statik was able to make the building feel like it was part of the neighborhood,” Viars told the Lafayette Journal and Courier. “It made a statement of respect, inclusion, and celebration of the diverse ethnicities in that part of town. I wondered if there was any way we could get him to bring his skill and passion to Lafayette for our project. Honestly, I’m still a bit surprised he said yes.”
To paint the community center’s mural, Barnes decided to forgo using skin tones and instead used abstract colors “to get around the stigma of race” and so the mural “shines, even on a dark cloudy day—even at nighttime.” The words “Better Together” capture the heart of the community center’s mission. “Better Together—that’s the way we feel about every person in the north end of our town, and Statik has made that message come alive,” Viars says.
The words “Better Together” can also describe how Faith Church funded the construction of Northend Community Center. Five hundred people and organizations provided funds, and if additional money from the church’s capital campaign commitments is donated as promised, Viars says, the facility will be debt free in just over two years.
Jonathan Smith considers Faith Church “an inverse mega church.” He says, “We reach more people through our community ministries Monday through Saturday than we could ever reach in a worship service on Sunday.”
“We reach more people through our community ministries Monday through Saturday than we could ever reach in a worship service on Sunday.”
He encourages churches that are considering expanding their current facilities or building new ones to “stop and think.” Not every church needs to build a community center, he says. “Instead of building churches, though, look at it the other way. Build for your community and then have your church in it. Don’t build for your church and then have the community in it. Trust me, the community knows the difference.”
Melissa Meyer is an editor for Regular Baptist Press and assistant editor of the Baptist Bulletin.