By Bob Smietana
Sunday mornings might be one of the quietest times of the week at Ravenswood Covenant Church on Chicago’s north side.
The church has a thriving Sunday school and vibrant worship service that draws about 100 people most weeks.
Once church services are over, however, the ministry at Ravenswood is just getting started. Like many churches, Ravenswood puts its building to work all week long, helping the congregation live out what’s preached on Sundays.
Churches bring great value—spiritual, as well as social and economic—to their communities with the ministries and services they provide.
A study by Partners for Sacred Places and the University of Pennsylvania found the average urban church contributes $1.7 million in value to its community each year.
Whether through after-school programs, food pantries, or counseling services, local churches are community hubs providing a variety of resources and meeting multiple needs.
Hosting programs and events for the community can even draw unchurched neighbors to your facility who otherwise would never attend. A Lifeway Research study found only a third of unchurched Americans would be interested in visiting a worship service.
However, they are likely to attend a community event. About two-thirds (62 percent) would attend a church meeting about neighborhood safety. Half would take part in a community service event (51 percent), concert (45 percent), sports or exercise program (46 percent), or neighborhood get-together (45 percent) at a church.
Here are four churches that are using their facilities to serve and bless their communities seven days a week.
Iron Ridge Church: Movies, pizza, and the gospel
For the past decade, Iron Ridge Church in Waukon, Iowa, population 3,869, has had one of the most unusual church facilities in the country.
On Sundays, the congregation worshipped in the 300-seat Main Feature Theater on Main Street in downtown Waukon. The rest of the week, the church showed family-friendly movies and sold a boatload of pizza.
Running a pizza parlor and movie theater has been a boon to the church’s ministry, says pastor Marlan Mincks, who planted Iron Ridge about 13 years ago.
The congregation ran into trouble with the local zoning board when it first bought the theater and tried to convert it into a church. Local officials opposed the move, fearing the loss of another downtown business. So they denied the church a permit.
That left Mincks and the congregation with two choices: they could file suit and fight the town in court. Or they could run the business and offer something of value to the community.
“We chose to be good neighbors rather than going to court,” he says. “We could have forced their hand, but instead we asked, ‘How can we make this work?’”
After signing papers on the building, Mincks and other church leaders went through a crash course in making pizzas and showing movies. The church also formed a board to run the business.
The board decided to focus on showing family-friendly films, a needed niche in the area, where many parents commute to nearby Decorah, a college town, for work.
Parents might want to take their kids to a movie, but they don’t want to get back in the car for another long drive, he says.
Running the business fit Mincks’ personality. He’d run several businesses before becoming a pastor and loved the challenge of a new enterprise. His son had worked in food service, so he was able to apply those skills to pizza making as well.
Mincks has come to see the business as a benefit to the church. It gets people in the door—and if they come for a movie and have a good time, they might be open to coming to church.
So far, things have gone well. The church now averages about 600 people for worship, no small feat in a town of fewer than 4,000.
Since buying the building, the church has invested more than $80,000 in renovations, including a new projection system. Local officials now see the church as an asset to the community.
The church has outgrown the movie theater and recently moved to a new facility, but it has no plans to give up the theater and pizza place, which are still going strong.
“We still make the best pizza in town,” says Mincks.
Mosaic Church: Funding and expanding its mission
In 2012, Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, bought a shuttered Kmart on about 10 acres in one of the poorest areas of the city.
The building was too big for the church—it’s about 100,000 square feet, and the church needed only 35,000. And it was costly—it took the church about six years to scrape up the $500,000 down payment for the property.
Still, Mosiac pastor Mark DeYmaz believed the building could be brought back to life as an asset for both the church and the community.
Besides, the church had few other options. It had been outbid for all the other properties it tried to buy.
“It’s that old saying—desperation leads to innovation,” says DeYmaz.
As soon as the church bought the property, DeYmaz went looking for partners. The first was 10 Fitness, a chain of local health clubs known for $10-a-month memberships. The company needed a place to rent in urban Little Rock and thought Mosaic’s building might be a good fit.
The health club ended up renting half the building, which helps pay the church’s mortgage. Another business, which sells scratched and dented new appliances, rents out the building’s loading dock.
Plus, 10 Fitness paid for a number of improvements to the building, boosting its value. As a result, Mosaic was able to borrow the money it needed to renovate the other half of the building.
Today that side of the building is home to the church and to Vine and Village, a church-run nonprofit that hosts a number of programs throughout the week.
Those include a tutoring program, a MOPS group for teen moms, a chess club, a legal clinic for immigrants, a mobile farmers’ market, and the Orchard, the city’s largest food pantry.
On Tuesdays, the church’s main gathering area is transformed into a community fair. Neighbors in need can pick up fresh produce and groceries, visit a medical clinic run by a local hospital, find out about job opportunities, and buy clothes from Goodwill.
“We serve about 55 percent of the people in this zip code at the Orchard,” says DeYmaz. “They depend on us for three or four days of meals a month.”
The church couldn’t afford all of its ministries if it relied on tithes and offerings alone, says DeYmaz. Mosaic isn’t in a wealthy community. Many church members are struggling to get by. So the church got creative in how it funds ministry.
“We have a big vision but with limited funds,” says DeYmaz, who outlines the church’s approach to ministry in Disruption: Repurposing the Church to Redeem the Community, a new book due out this spring. “That forces you to think outside the box.”
Putting a formerly abandoned building to work fits the Christian message as well, he says. Mosiac’s building—which was once shuttered—is now used to meet people’s spiritual and physical needs. By providing a home for local businesses, the church also helps create jobs and improve the local economy.
The new building has become a physical representation of the new life offered in God’s kingdom. That’s allowed the church to demonstrate the “redemptive power of the resurrection in tangible, credible ways and beyond words,” DeYmaz writes in Disruption.
Ravenswood Covenant Church: Meeting community needs
On Monday mornings, the church’s Sunday school classrooms are filled with sounds of toddlers at play at the Ravenswood Community Child Care Center, a nonprofit the church founded more than a decade ago to assist teen moms in the community.
Young Life meets at the church on Monday nights. On Tuesday and Friday nights, the church’s gym is packed with students at Serve City, a Christian ministry that combines athletics and discipleship.
During the spring and summer, a farmers’ market draws as many as 400 or 500 local residents to the church parking lot, where they can buy fresh produce and visit booths run by local residents.
Thursday nights, pastor Phil Staurseth, a former camp director, whips up a tasty meal for about 70 people. Among them: members of an evening Bible study and 30 students from Youth Collision—a joint youth ministry of six nearby churches. The church gym is also open for local families to bring their kids for a play date.
During the summer things are even busier, with about 50 grade-school students involved in a faith-based education summer camp called “Kids’ College.”
Scheduling events at church can be a headache at times, says Staurseth, with so many activities. But the ministry is worth the hassle, he says.
“What we don’t want to be is a church that meets on a Sunday morning and then the building sits empty the rest of the week,” says Staurseth.
The congregation has come to value its building as an asset for ministry, says Staurseth.
“It gives space to live out the gospel—to care for our neighbors and practice the things we talk about on Sunday mornings,” he says.
Regina Thompson, an architect with the faith-based design firm Visioneering Studios, says she encourages churches to see their building as a tool for ministry. That’s true for established churches and for congregations building or buying a new facility.
When working with congregations on a new building, Thompson focuses on ministry—rather than building design. She and her colleagues meet with church leaders to learn about their vision for ministry and the community the church serves. Those conversations help shape the kind of buildings Thompson and her colleagues design.
“The whole ministry side of the church is just as important as the facility side for us,” she says.
One key for getting the most out of your building: find strategic partners.
Ravenswood Covenant, for example, is a smaller, urban congregation and the community has many needs. The church can’t minister to all those needs but can focus on a few ministries, like the child care center.
Along with getting high-quality child care that allows them to stay in school, the teen moms in the program are also part of a discipleship and mentoring group, led by a church staff member.
The farmers’ market is also a priority for the church. By bringing people to the church, it serves as an outreach to the neighborhood. The market is also a gift to the community.
“We are asking, ‘What can we do for our community and ask for nothing in return?’” says Staurseth. “That led to the idea of the farmers’ market.”
Leaders of the local chamber of commerce have embraced the market and have partnered with the church. So have local businesses. Those relationships have allowed Staurseth to minister to folks who might never show up on Sunday.
Among them is a local leader whose young daughter died about a year and a half ago. While working together, Staurseth has been able to be a pastor to her, even though this leader is not part of his congregation.
“These partnerships allow me to be a pastor to the neighborhood,” he said.
Working with partners such as Young Life, Collision, Serve City, and other nonprofits allows the church to expand its reach to the community despite its small size.
“That’s the benefit of partnering with all these other organizations,” Staurseth says. “We don’t feel like we have to do it all.”
First Baptist Houston: Reaching the unchurched
No matter what kinds of programs your church runs during the week, be sure to keep the focus on ministry, says Dave Bundrick, minister of fitness and recreation at First Baptist Church in Houston.
Among the programs Bundrick oversees is a 1,200-member fitness center that the church has run since the 1980s.
At first, the center mostly ran activities for church members, he says. Today, the center focuses more on outreach.
“We help the church accomplish its mission of being a relevant, biblical community,” he says. “Every time someone steps foot in our facility for one of our programs, that is an opportunity for ministry.”
Exercise classes at First Baptist start with prayer, and teams in the church’s sports leagues often share devotions together.
The center also organizes a bowling league for older members and volleyball leagues for its young adult small groups, giving those groups a chance to fellowship together. Teams are encouraged to invite non-church members to join in.
Having a great facility is a blessing, says Bundrick. But having good staff matters just as much. That’s something churches forget when they start recreation ministries or other programs.
“Sometimes churches put millions into a facility but don’t put much effort or thought into who they hired to run the program or ministry,” he says.
When he talks to his staff, Bundrick reminds them of the need to run quality programs. But he also reminds them that making people feel welcome matters as well.
Sometimes people will come to a recreation program before ever coming to church. If they have a good experience, then they might be open to coming to a service.
A study of unchurched Americans found almost half (46 percent) would be “likely” or “extremely likely” to attend a recreation program at a church if invited by someone they knew. Fewer (35 percent) are open to coming to a worship service.
“Your first time to a church isn’t necessarily a worship service or Bible study,” says Bundrick. “That can be intimidating for a lot of folks. We create safe places for people to start to come to church.”
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.