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Building a church without a building

Urban Connect in Phoenix moved into event building on Easter

by Robyn Davis Sekula | Special to Presbyterian News Service

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

That’s the question Rev. 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 space operates as an event venue, owned and operated by a separate board of directors and staff. Weddings, dinners, and other 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 Rev. Freitas serving as the Executive Director of the Board of Directors, and two other church leaders serving as board members.

“The building is always a limiting factor,” says Rev. 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?”

Easter Sunday was the congregation’s move-in date, although a few Sunday services occurred in the space over the winter months, thanks largely to Phoenix’s warm climate.

The origins of Urban Connect

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

Meanwhile, The Vintage 45 has taken shape. The 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, is the foreman overseeing construction and gave a tour in the space recently along with Pastor E. He points to the outside space as proudly as the interior, noting all of the extra plugs and the spots where large, easy to open overhead garage doors will be installed, making it easy for the venue to host food trucks.

Urban Connect worships in a building that was once home to a heavy equipment dealership — it also serves as an event venue in Phoenix’s warehouse district. —Duncan Maloney

Ultimately, though, the draw for members like Brett is that they want to change the world. “We want to see lives transformed,” Pastor E says. “That’s our main goal. Brett is passionate about being missional, and so am I.”

The event venue is in Phoenix’s warehouse district. 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. Pastor E has noticed that many younger people will show up to help with service projects but may not make 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,” Pastor E 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 will offer programs such as job fairs, or other community meetings, and 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. He wants to partner with community organizations to reach the public.

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

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

And when asked about how many members the congregation has, he says it doesn’t matter. What matters 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 Pres Phoenix in 1994, says the transformation has been gratifying. He was an elder at First Pres, 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.”

Urban Connect is part of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A.’s new worshiping communities movement which began in 2012 as part of a church wide effort to create 1001 new worshiping communities in 10 years—currently nearly 350 (344) are known to exist across the denomination.

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