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Building a church without owning a building

Congregation from historic church transforms to new worshiping community

by Robyn Davis Sekula | Communications consultant, writer, and ruling elder in the PC(USA). She is a member of Highland Presbyterian Church in Louisville.

Historic First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix sold its traditional building to start Urban Connect, a new worshiping community that meets in an event center. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Maloney)

Historic First Presbyterian Church in Phoenix sold its traditional building to start Urban Connect, a new worshiping community that meets in an event center. (Photo courtesy of Duncan Maloney)

What could your congregation do if it didn’t have to worry about keeping up a building?

That’s the question Eneyas Freitas asked when he started a new worshiping community called Urban Connect in Phoenix. His congregation meets at a new event venue called the Vintage 45 in Phoenix’s warehouse district every Sunday morning.

The other days of the week the Vintage 45 building operates as an event space, owned and operated by a separate board of directors and staff. Weddings, dinners, and similar events help pay the bills to keep the space open and operating, and the church won’t have to worry about keeping the lights on. The event venue has ties to the church, with Freitas serving as executive director of the board of directors, and two other church leaders serving as board members.

“The building is always a limiting factor,” says Freitas, a native of Brazil who prefers to be called Pastor E. “What if we take the building out of the equation and the building becomes a blessing, not a burden?”

The origins of Urban Connect

The project came out of Historic First Presbyterian in Phoenix, which was a downtown church no longer thriving. The historic Phoenix church sold its building to another congregation in 2012. Freitas came into the project to help the First Presbyterian group form one of the PC(USA)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities, which became known as Urban Connect. It met in a movie theater on Sunday mornings until the current space was available.

The Vintage 45 building was once home to a heavy equipment dealership. Its rugged, urban look and high ceilings give the space lots of flexibility in hosting events.

Brett Wingate, the clerk of session for Urban Connect, oversaw construction. He points to the outside space as proudly as to the interior, noting all of the extra plugs and the place where overhead garage doors will be installed, making it easy for the venue to host food trucks.

Ultimately, though, the draw for members like Wingate isn’t the building, but a shared desire to change the world.

“We want to see lives transformed,” Freitas says. “That’s our main goal. Brett is passionate about being missional, and so am I.”

The skyscrapers of downtown Phoenix are mere blocks away, as is the poverty of some of Phoenix’s struggling neighborhoods. Urban Connect aims to be a bridge between the two.

Besides Sunday morning services at the Vintage 45, Urban Connect offers community service opportunities. Freitas has noticed that many young people will show up to help with service projects but may not make it to church on Sunday morning. That shifts, he says, as they become more involved in the congregation and seek a sense of community. “Downtown is vital,” Freitas says. “There are lots of millennials, and they’re a very diverse group. We see lots of young couples moving into downtown.”

Beyond church

Besides Sunday morning worship services, Urban Connect plans to offer programs such as job fairs or other community meetings, and to invite people to attend these events for free. The congregation will work with the event staff to ensure there is adequate time and energy to host such events, which are core to the congregation’s mission. Freitas wants to partner with community organizations to reach the public.

As reinforcement of the idea that it is the church’s job to be out in the community, Freitas will not have an office at the Vintage 45. “I don’t need an office,” he says. “My place is to be where the people are.”

The concept of the church is amorphous, too, he says, because the church doesn’t have to be overly concerned with numbers. Stewardship changes from what can be a focus on dollars to a focus on the more spiritual side of giving.

Likewise, when asked how many members the congregation has, he says it doesn’t matter. What matters, he says, is the impact of the church and its work. “It doesn’t matter if you have 30 or 3,000,” he says. On Easter Sunday, about 250 adults and 70 children came for worship.

Wingate, who joined First Presbyterian in Phoenix in 1994, says the transformation has been gratifying. He was an elder at First, and is now an elder for Urban Connect.

“As an urban church, you have to remember what our facility was and where we started,” Wingate says. “The church has struggled since the 1960s. We have been working for a number of years to develop a new urban church and had tried various iterations of it. This is so gratifying to see this be finished and open.”

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