A New Church Planting Model?
It began as a couples’ dream to revitalize an old school building and is now quite likely becoming a new model for planting churches in rural and declining inner-city communities throughout the United States!
In 2013, Drew Lewis and Amy Blansit (husband and wife) purchased a 100-year-old school building that had been on the market for five years in the declining and crime-riddled Grant Beach neighborhood in central Springfield, Missouri. The building, which had been broken into countless times, vandalized repeatedly, and used by homeless individuals as an unofficial shelter, had a leaky roof, and was in overall poor condition when the couple made their purchase with the hope of flipping the property.
But that wasn’t to be. Just a few months after purchasing the old Fairbanks School, Drew had a recurrence of colon cancer and within a few short months, passed away. Amy, who had been the health and wellness director at a local university, decided to hang onto the property and turn it into a facility to honor Drew’s memory, creating the Drew Lewis Foundation.
Amy dreamed of creating a community center that would offer neighborhood services and an urban farm and market, but she needed partners before the dream cold become a reality. Then church planter and AG U.S. Missions Missionary Associate Jeremy Hahn stepped into the picture.
Hahn says he had been looking at the school for some time, which had been on and off the market for years, and was preparing to make a bid on it to develop the building as a community center and inner-city church. As the property was closer to being bulldozed than purchased, he was caught by surprise when the property suddenly sold — he thought he had missed his opportunity.
Unknown to Hahn, Drew Lewis then tragically passed away and Amy was left grieving, but with a plan — only not sure how to make it happen. But as God would have it, a mutual friend who knew of Amy’s dream and Hahn’s hopes, brought the two together in 2014 to discuss a possible collaborative effort.
It was an answer to both of their prayers!
Through Hahn’s connections with ministry agencies, such as Convoy of Hope, and church leaders and Blansit’s involvement in the wellness community and links to service organizations, it became quickly apparent that their meeting was not by chance — God was in the midst of this!
“Amy is a Christian, so when I talked to her about my vision of creating an inner-city church that is part of a community center for the neighborhood, she quickly saw how our visions interconnected. Soon, we were working together,” Hahn says. “And one of the very first things that happened was the Community Foundation of the Ozarks gave us a low-interest loan to have a new roof put on the building to keep the interior of the building dry and to fund Phase II of the Fairbanks renovation.”
Hahn explains that any church or community start-up requires funding, so it was important that services the neighborhood needed were incorporated early on into the center to help offset costs.
“One of the things this partnership has done is create an entire team of individuals who are interested in more than just providing resources,” Blansit says. “We have people who are concerned about developing community and spirituality. People know they’re going to get a warm welcome and a warm hug from people who care about them, not just someone handing you stuff.”
Hahn says currently two phases of the renovation have been completed. The first phase — shared office space to rent out, computer lab for the neighborhood, and a small hygiene and clothing bank — was completed in late 2014. Phase two — a preschool, rentable event center, and church facilities along with a commercial kitchen to lease out to startup companies and other organizations as well as use as a teaching center — cut the ribbon in March 2016. Phase three, possibly the most ambitious of the three phases, includes remodeling the remaining 15,000 square feet (25,000 total) into a fresh food market, community classroom, tutoring/afterschool program classroom, event center, worm and mushroom farm, recording studio, and screen printing training center.
Blansit says her admittedly lofty goal is to have the third phase completed by the fall. “We have some remediation needed, where lead paint and asbestos is a concern,” she says, “and then we have three to four months of additional construction in order to complete the project — we’re currently working on raising the capital needed to see that completed.”
Kristina Wilmoth, who has worked with Blansit since the beginning of the project and now also volunteers her time as the PR coordinator for Hahn’s Life360 at the Fairbanks (AG) church, says the partnership between the Drew Lewis Foundation (community center) and the church is making a strong impact on the neighborhood.
“The center and the church have collaborative goals which complement, interact, and overlap with one another,” Wilmoth observes.
Hahn says that what they have found to be very successful in bringing the neighborhood into the center and the church are weekly meals.
“Every Sunday night, we invite the neighborhood for a meal and a message,” Hahn says. “We seat people at round tables in families and with other families in order to develop both family relationships and neighborhood relationships. Following the meal, we dismiss the kids for a class of their own and then I give a brief sermon. We’ve experienced some great success with this model.”
Wilmoth says the community center offers a similar Thursday night meal, following the example of the church, only this is more geared towards the development of neighborhood relationships and providing educational classes.
“We offer things such as parenting classes, budgeting workshops, opportunities to ask lawyers questions, and other resources people in the neighborhood might not otherwise have access to,” Wilmoth says. “This also makes for an easy transition to tell people about the Sunday evening meals and activities, while also informing Sunday-evening attendees about the Thursday evening meals and activities.”
What some may find a bit surprising is one of the underlying principles leadership has adopted for this revitalization project. Although the center and church have a small stash of food and clothing items to giveaway in an emergency situation, it is only used in emergencies.
“One of our themes is, nothing leaves for free,” Hahn says. “Before people walk out the door with resources, we want them to invest in the center and/or church through volunteering their time, assisting with renovations, attending events, or in someway getting involved through other opportunities. We want the neighborhood to take ownership of ‘their’ community center and ‘their’ church.”
This approach has been well received by the neighborhood as the purpose of the center and church is about serving and meeting the needs of that particular neighborhood. Hahn understands the simple equation that if their limited resources are used by those from outside their neighborhood, then those resources are no longer available to serve and meet the needs of those in their neighborhood.
An isolationist approach? Not really. Hahn instead sees this as establishing a working, replicable model for other neighborhoods to emulate. “I would like to see at least five or six more neighborhood churches and community centers launched together in northern Springfield alone,” he says.
“Our goal is to be looking at additional neighborhoods in 18 months,” Blansit says, adding that their vision for the additional centers would be fulfilled in just three to five years.
In many ways what Hahn and Blansit are talking about is re-establishing the church as the hub of its community — where social and spiritual can combine and neighbors are no longer strangers, but friends willing to lookout for and help one another. Hahn explains that in larger cities, every neighborhood would benefit from this type of arrangement while in a rural area, perhaps only one church and community center would be needed.
“This shift that’s occurring is almost comical,” Blansit said. “For so long, people’s focus has been on how fast we can make things happen and how isolated can I be, and now we’re reversing it — growing things locally, having a neighborhood grocery I can walk to . . . there’s a resurgence to community, a social component of being human beings . . . engaged with each other — and that’s why this community center church model is being so well received.”
Life360 church (AG), which has seven other campuses and is led by Executive Pastor Ted Cederblom, is the parent church launching Hahn and Life360 at the Fairbanks. Hahn says the Fairbanks church has not even officially launched, but they’re running about 50 to 60 people a week, with more than 100 attending on Easter Sunday.
“The neighborhood is extremely excited about this project,” Blansit says. “They’ve heard so many promises about this property in the past, but now it’s truly occurring and it’s making a difference . . . we’re not only providing help, but a sense of hope to the neighborhood.”
Even as this story was being developed, God has continued to bless the effort. On April 5, a press conference was held announcing that the Northwest Springfield Project, of which the center and Life360 at the Fairbanks church are a part, had received a $1.3 million collaborative grant.
“This is huge,” Hahn says. “This grant will allow places like Habitat for Humanity to come into the neighborhood and remodel homes as well as provide counseling opportunities, assist homeowners in financial stress, provide afterschool programming costs, and much more. Although the church may not directly benefit from the funds, it will free up capital to invest in the remodel.”
Blansit readily agrees, adding that the grant money will also pay for additional staff. She explains that the purpose of the community center and church isn’t limited to drawing people in, but going out and engaging the neighborhood.
“We’re focused on community-driven development in order to really improve the quality of life for our neighbors,” she says. “We are looking at barriers to that in the neighborhood, such as safe and walkable sidewalks; it doesn’t matter if you have a beautiful park if people don’t feel safe using it.”
Wilmoth says that in addition to anticipating physical improvements planned for the neighborhood, they continue to see God at work in hearts and lives. “We’ve seen very clear answers to prayer,” she says. “People are being blessed physically, spiritually, and emotionally as they connect to each other through the community center and the church.”
Hahn is already looking forward to seeing the Community Center Church model spread to other parts of the state and nation. “This partnership brings immediate and tangible value to a community,” he explains, “and that partnership helps raise up a strong church where people can love and grow together, have a strong faith and live it out.”