POSTED ON FEBRUARY 20, 2013:
What Would Jesus Have Done?
Go to where the people are and give them something free!
Neither pastor makes any funds at Revolve."
Jeff Brame, co-pastor at Revolve Church, makes his community's ends meet on a shoestring budget. Along with co-pastor Doug Keifer, he manages the church without any salary.
And did I mention that it's in the Promenade Mall?
Revolve Church is probably the most obvious example of a growing phenomenon in Tulsa. Rather than joining an established community, an increasing number of clergy are going off on their own and starting small churches -- many of them in retail storefronts.
While it may seem strange to imagine a church in something other than a large building with a white steeple, storefront churches are making the most of where they find themselves.
Indeed, some of them are thriving. Revolve Church, for example, began with seven families just a year ago and now attracts 70 to 75 people to the average Saturday evening service.
Storefront pastors interviewed by UTW were honest about why they chose storefront: it was the only financially viable option.
Yet -- as you might expect from pastors -- they see God in their financial circumstances. These ministers believe their circumstances open their communities up to people who might otherwise never darken the door of a church. While storefront wasn't the first choice for any of them, they have found that it helps them appeal to the broader community.
And that is exactly what they want.
Money, Money, Money
When Brame and Keifer started Revolve, the first thing they had to do was find a place to hold services.
"We were just trying to find space. A lot of the places, the prices were just outrageous," Brame said. "My wife and I for date nights would just walk around Promenade Mall. ... We noticed a lot of mom and pops shops."
That got the wheels turning. As it turned out, Promenade had space available and was more than willing to accommodate a church assembly. "They responded with, 'We'd love to have a church here,'" Brame said.
Brame said generous lease terms are a major advantage of putting a church in a mall. "It's a short term lease," he said. "If you're growing you don't want to be locked into a lease for three or four years."
Many traditional church buildings, even those that might otherwise be affordable, come with hidden costs on top of the rent or mortgage. "Many of the buildings that exist cost a lot to maintain," Brame said. "[Storefront] is smarter because then you're not locked into debt."
Jeff Brame gathers a crowd at Revolve Church in the Promenade Mall.
Keeping costs down is important in any church. Many small churches have what are called bivocational pastors, who have a second or even third job on top of their ministering duties.
Barron Longstreth, pastor of The Church Today, holds services in a strip mall on East 91st Street. He put the financial commitment in stark terms. "A majority of church plants [new churches] fail in the first five years," he said.
The short-term leases also helped as The Church Today began four years ago. The location on 91st Street is the church's third location. Longstreth said the first location was only 600 square feet because the congregation was only seven people, including Longstreth's own wife and children.
As The Church Today grew, so have costs. Even in its current location, "We've remodeled eight times to fit the needs of the church," Longstreth said.
"You gotta go in there and operate like a business," he explained. He said that for his congregation, "I'm a pastor. But as far as the IRS is concerned, this is a corporation and I'm the president."
Sound fiscal management is key to why new churches sometimes choose storefront. "There [was] no capital," Longstreth said, recalling The Church Today's beginnings. "Storefront is a testing ground."
Longstreth only recently quit his second job as a warehouse manager to tend the church full time. He described that move as "scary" because he didn't know if the church would be able to support itself while paying for a full time employee.
These difficult -- and all too mundane -- decisions weigh on churches as they attempt to make a difference in peoples' spiritual lives. It even affects established churches.
Unlike Revolve and The Church Today, the Garnett Church of Christ is a well-established organization. It has been in the same location in east Tulsa for 43 years. But as a thousand weekly congregants shrank down to 300, it became clear that a change had to be made.
"All those years in East Tulsa, we've changed and the neighborhood has changed," said Greg Taylor, the church's lead minister.
The church has historically been predominately white and English-speaking. As East Tulsa's demographics have become less white and more linguistically diverse, the church struggled to connect with the broader community.
It also made paying the bills difficult.
The Garnett Church of Christ owns a large building and campus, including a big assembly hall, classrooms, office space, and other amenities that had to be maintained even after the congregation's numbers didn't justify it. As a result, the church started what Taylor called "a recent transformation ... a little bit of necessity because of a smaller group trying to manage a big property."
Six years ago, the church converted its building into the Green Country Event Center, offering its classrooms and office space to renters in order to help subsidize the church's functions.
The Garnett Church of Christ has been able to continue to function. It rents space to other churches, to martial arts instructors, and even to the Hmong American Association of Oklahoma. It used to serve as a campus for the Tulsa branch of ITT Technical Institute.
Perhaps surprisingly, these churches have been successful. Certainly, no one would blame The Church Today if it were still limping along with a part-time pastor. But it has thrived. "We have grown numerically since that leap of faith," Longstreth said about quitting his second job.
The church has done well financially. "In the last three years, we've given $50,000 for global missions," he said.
Longstreth told a story in which he said the church needed to buy a new van to pick up children for an afterschool care ministry. He told his congregation during a service that the money was needed, but he didn't think it would be raised very quickly.
After service, a lady approached him and gave him two checks for the cause. "I thought it was like a couple hundred bucks," Longstreth said. He thanked her and put them in his pocket without looking at them.
"The two checks totaled $37,000," he said.
Stories like that -- in which a more or less unfunded church survives exclusively on the generosity of congregants -- were a common theme for The Church Today and Revolve.
"We receive no funds from any other church or organization. It's just those who come into the door," Brame said about how Revolve supports itself. "You want to talk about having faith. ... I had hair before I started. Now I'm bald," he added, laughing.
Even though it's not technically a church, the Christian Science Reading Room at 41st and Harvard is also housed in a storefront.
Outreach Efforts by Revolve Church
COURTESY OF REVOLVE CHURCH
Beverly Larson, librarian for the reading room, said the CSRR operates on the same business model as storefront churches themselves. "I'm paid but the rest [of the people who work at the reading room] are volunteers," she said.
Operating on a small budget enables the reading room to function exclusively on funds provided by the Sixth Church of Christ, Scientist at 36th and Lewis. The reading room is "totally supported by the church," Larson said.
While relying on generosity may work for a new church -- indeed it may be a necessity -- Garnett Church of Christ took a different path.
"I think we kind of backed into [storefront]," said Lance Newsom, another of Garnett's ministers. While it wasn't the church's first idea, it has certainly helped it survive.
And going storefront has helped each church clarify its sense of mission.
In a city as seemingly religious as Tulsa, it may seem counterintuitive to start a new church or keep one open when times turn tough. One might just as easily join an established congregation or consolidate into one.
That's not how Brame sees it.
"Tulsa is a post-Christian city. ... Things have changed greatly in the last few years," he said. "There's not a lot of new churches for growth in the city. That's one reason we felt God was calling us to start a new church in Tulsa."
Brame believes that many established churches don't provide appropriate ministries to young people and families with children. "[Christianity] is declining [in Tulsa] because most of those churches are older," he said.
"There's a lot of church buildings but not a lot of churches," Brame added.
Longstreth provided a similar assessment. "There are 15,000 unchurched people in this zip code alone," he said, referring to 74133, where The Church Today is located. Longstreth said he is not necessarily trying to poach members of other churches, but is trying to reach people who want to, in his words, "establish an ongoing relationship" with God.
While necessity drove pastors to open storefront churches, that necessity has helped define what the pastors want their congregations to be.
Longstreth he would eventually like his congregation to own a freestanding building, but he's glad for the storefront experience. "I have a controversial view. ... When people think storefront, they think second class ... [but] there are people who aren't being reached," he said.
"I think there's a sense of wonder there," he added. "The experience of a storefront offers a freshness."
He believes that people who otherwise would never darken the door of the church might feel more comfortable wandering in to a storefront because it doesn't look like a stereotypical church. In other words, it doesn't require the unchurched to step too far out of their comfort zones.
"People don't feel like they have to add up when they walk into a storefront," Longstreth said.
Like Brame at Revolve, Longstreth's church may have a particular appeal to younger families. Of the 90 or so congregants who turn up on a given Sunday, he said about 35 are younger than 18.
The necessity may have turned into a self-conscious non-traditionalism. "The way we view the culture of church is important," Longstreth said.
Brame agreed that breaking out of traditional church culture impacts Revolve's mission. "Church has become boring ... kind of, come in, you do your thing, and you come out. We want something that impacts your life," he said.
"We try to remove a lot of churchy language. ... Salvation and grace and fellowship. We don't use those words on the outside of our building because people not in the church don't relate to those words," Brame added.
Operating out of a storefront enables this mission. "A lady next door at Macy's, ... she comes in [for service] on break. ... People who work in the mall come in and then go back to work," he said.
These two churches share a belief that low overhead provides them with more funds for community outreach. Brame noted that Revolve -- which at the time was only a few months old -- provided a 400 pound piñata at a city-wide Cinco de Mayo party last year. Congregants also put up a booth at Oktoberfest and served beer. (Brame was particularly excited about the beer.)
"It's hard to love people if you're not in the community," Brame said.
Longstreth noted that The Church Today was able to spend between $3,000 and $4,000 on a trunk or treat party for the strip mall last Halloween. "We don't spend a ton on advertising," he said, adding that the church has grown through word of mouth.
Necessity likewise drove a shift in mission at the Garnett Church of Christ, though Taylor is glad it occurred. "We literally have people from every religion coming [here]," Taylor said. "That's not very common. ... With think it's a unique angle to talk about who Jesus is in an open atmosphere."
Lance Newsom, another minister at Garnett, agreed. "By opening a space, we have an opportunity to interact ... [and] break down barriers," he said.
Like Revolve and The Church Today, Garnett Church of Christ uses its storefront nature to attract unchurched people, particularly emphasizing non-English speakers. "Many different ethnic groups are ... interested in a biblical perspective," Taylor said.
Garnett Church of Christ is not as eager as Revolve to eschew old church traditions. For example, hymns at Garnett are sung a capella -- a tradition in churches of Christ. However, Newsom was quick to point out that these traditions are maintained only out of preference, and not from a belief that they are necessary. "Our sole purpose is to interact with lives," he said.
Indeed, Taylor and Newsom were loath to talk about ecclesiastical matters. When asked a question about clerical garb, Newsom laughed and said, "Now you're talking about churchy stuff!" He added that blue jeans and a button down shirt "is what I wear."
Stewardship. Garnett Church of Christ member Sally Schweikhard beautifies Green Country Event Center.
COURTESY OFGARNETT CHURCH OF CHRIST
Larson at the Christian Science Reading Room sees her storefront as something of a halfway point as well. "We're the bridge between the church and the community," she said. "The church is only open for an hour on Wednesday and an hour on Sunday for services." The reading room, on the other hand, is open six days a week.
The storefront atmosphere has proven to be invitational as well. "People just walk in off the street and say, 'What are y'all about?'" Larson said. "Next thing, they're coming to group meetings and coming to church."
(Larson added that walk-ins can sometimes enable her to dispel rumors about Christian Science, which is sometimes incorrectly assumed to be related to the Church of Scientology. "Someone came in talking about Tom Cruise. I said no," she said with a smile.)
In his seminal book, Religion in Sociological Perspective, scholar Bryan Wilson noted that many new religious movements adopt practices for practical reasons but these practices later become sacralized -- that is, they become viewed as holy and therefore unchangeable.
The classic example Wilson gave is the Salvation Army. When it was established in Britain in the 1860s, it adopted the practice of using military titles and uniforms for clergy because that was an imperialist age and the practice made the organization seem relevant.
By the time Wilson wrote after the Vietnam War, military paraphernalia actually harmed the Salvation Army's mission because religious seekers were more likely to be anti-war.
But the Salvation Army kept its military regalia.
It remains to be seen whether starting a church in a storefront will become sacralized in future generations. However, it is true that churches begin in storefronts purely for practical purposes -- and only later find their sense of mission there.
"The storefront enables us to have a place to gather to worship corporately," Brame said. "If we were locked into a large, expensive building we couldn't put the resources and time into something else."
Taylor put it slightly differently. "It's not something we do to be hip," he said. Rather, it's a realization that "the kingdom of God [is] bigger than our church."
That realization may make good business sense. Community outreach helps these churches grow (or at least maintain) themselves. "When people have a place to call home and not just church, it's easier to want to give into it," Brame said, referring to contributing members.
Still, while churches must focus on practical matters -- and while these practical matters may eventually become spiritualized -- that doesn't take these pastors' eyes off what they want to accomplish.
"Even if there's not specific return on that dollar, we've helped," Longstreth said.
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