28 Year old Covenant Church Reinvents Itself for a New Life by Rob Bryceson
I walked out of my office a while back to get a cup of coffee in our café. I stood there a moment and surveyed the room. Eight ladies who manage the local Union Gospel Mission Women’s Recovery Shelter were sitting around a couple of tables and discussing new plans and strategies for fresh ministry. Two other ladies in Salvation Army uniforms where sharing a coffee at another table and seemed to be in a deep personal discussion. A young woman I knew as the Young Life Leader at the High school half a mile away was talking with the head of Christ Kitchen, a restaurant style ministry that helps rescue women from homelessness or the street life. Some men were in the front corner by the main windows holding a Bible study. Two Moody Bible students had their laptops open and were doing homework. None of these people attend our church services.
We had come a long way from being a downtown brick cathedral surrounded by poverty culture, addicts, and homeless street people. For five years we held a Sunday afternoon free community meal for our neighborhood. 150-200 people came each week to eat the only free hot meal served downtown on Sundays. We would watch football or NASCAR together and then give out hygiene packs, hats, gloves, shoes, or coats. We made a lot of street friends. It was wild and sometimes crazy. Once in a while the cops or medical emergency units had to be called, but we built a great reputation in the street culture as well as the city government.
Everyone said, “That’s what the church should be doing! Good for you guys, more churches should do that!” But of course they won’t come. They won’t attend. They won’t volunteer or give to keep it going. In Sunday church services we were down to 30 members, 20 street people and four dogs. We literally had board meetings where a topic on the agenda was “how drunk can someone be and still attend services? Another topic was “Where do we put the shopping carts full of personal belongings during the services to keep the safe?”
The meals cost us thousands of dollars each year to sponsor. That money had to be raised outside of normal church giving which couldn’t even pay the basic bills. We had to create side budgets to fund the lights and heat from the donations to the meals because the church was too small and poor in membership to sustain itself. We were sitting in 12,000 sq. ft. building on a downtown corner site that our church had occupied since 1905 when we used to call ourselves The Swedish Tabernacle. For 60 years we had been First Covenant, but almost none of the 40,000 cars a day that drove by us knew our name. Church annual meeting minutes showed they had been discussing closing since 1971. I’ve been the pastor here for 8-1/2 years.
I was tired of sitting in a huge quiet, empty building all week long pretending we could fill it on Sunday’s with an inspirational and attracting service. No matter what we did we could not overcome the neighborhood image and to be honest, it rarely smelled nice in our church once the congregation gathered. We were deeply in debt and broke beyond fixing. I had tried to close the church three times during my tenure. God wouldn’t let go of it though. Just over three years ago we were approached by megalopolis church Mars Hill out of Seattle to buy our site over a three year period. We took the deal with Mars Hill thinking, “what could possibly go wrong? What happened next in our journey is worth writing a book about, but it suffices to say – we lived through it.
After all those years of feeding up to 200 people a week, we had watched 40 or so come to church services and we built honest friendships with them. Each year we really only helped 8-10 actually get their life back and most of those meant helping them move away to reunite with family, or getting them out of downtown and far away from our church. As we prepared to sell and vacate the old building we decided that we would rather move our efforts and energies to focus on those 8-10. We decided to use the square footage of the new site to build a job training coffee shop and café for people coming out of addiction, poverty culture, or the department of corrections. We planned on closing the coffee shop on Sundays and doing church in the same space. So we weren’t going to be a church with a coffee shop in the lobby or church with a separate coffee shop on campus. We planned on doing church as a coffee shop - the center of a neighborhood.
We picked an old beer, candy, and cigarettes grocery store in a retro neighborhood constructed in the 1940s. The new site has about half the square footage of the downtown building but it has a 3,500 square foot basement for future development. We repurposed our 65 year old solid oak pews into café tables and took the old wood pulpit with us which now holds our espresso machine. We restored as much of the 1941 building as possible and tore out walls and ceilings to expose hidden architectural features we thought were pretty cool. We built shelving out of old pews. Where we had to construct new things we tried to make it look as late art deco period as possible.
We changed the church name to The Gathering House Covenant Church and café and opened our new site on Easter Sunday 2015. We currently run about 120 people each week. The church hadn’t broken a hundred in attendance on a regular basis since the 1960s. The next closest Evangelical Covenant Church is over three hour’s drive distance.
Along the way in this journey our Superintendent Greg Ye was a tremendous support. There were times it was so difficult that I wasn’t sure we could make it and Greg had faith when I didn’t. He believed in us and wouldn’t let go of having a Covenant presence in Spokane no matter what. I don’t have time to tell all the miraculous stories of how we ran out money because of the Mars Hill deal and we weren’t going to make it to completion. I wish I had time to tell you about how the Mormons painted us for free and the Catholics gave us $50,000 to finish. I would love to tell you about all the detail work that was done by 40 former drug addicts from the Dream Center who came up twice a week to work for only a free lunch from the burger joint across the street to help us get open. And I wish I had time to tell you how we got our occupancy permit on Good Friday 2015 just after closing hours because the city workers wanted to give us a miracle for our opening service on Easter Sunday.
Jesus uses our café space all the time now for his purposes. Quite a bit of ministry happens here that is not run by our church. The neighborhood and city often use our site too. The local business district holds their meetings in our conference rooms. The city government neighborhood council has moved their meetings to our site as well. The city-wide Homeless Coalition has opted to move their 100 member, 60 agency monthly meetings to The Gathering House. The Mayor, City Council members, and State Representatives have come to our coffee shop as speakers or to hold workshops and small conferences on issues of poverty in our city. Whenever I bump into the mayor in public settings he asks how our church and café are doing. We’re a town of over 300,000 people. It amazes me that Jesus would put us on his radar scope.
We dedicated ourselves and our square footage to something more than just our church and its worship service. Many of us have spent too many years where the unintentional but underlying message of our church to the community around us was; “If you come to our turf, during our times, on our terms, then and ONLY then will we help you or provide a space for you to learn and grow.” There is richness to being a genuine hub in the community on open terms. Lives are changed socially, spiritually, emotionally, and economically in our house. We now serve the Kingdom of God beyond our control and we serve the community around us beyond our abilities.