Monday, August 17, 2009

Flip this church

I think if I were handy (and patient and had lots of time on my hands), I would get in to "flipping"...taking an old, beat-up, negelected house and fixing it up. There' s something satisfying about turning an eyesore into a thing of beauty, or at least making it much less of an eyesore.

We've been doing a bit of "flipping" at the church the past few years. (True on many levels, but right now I'm referring to the actual physical building itself). A couple years ago, a lot of elbow grease went into remodeling our dreary little sanctuary.
Well, actually, it was less of a remodel and more of a restoration. The classic bow-tress ceiling and turn-of-the-century brick masonry had long ago been covered with a drop ceiling and dry wall by some previous, uninspired owner of the building.

When Living Hope purchased the storefront building in the early 90s, it was originally thought to be a cheap, temporary waystation on the way to something bigger and better. This humble little storefront on Main Street was never intended to be a permanent home for the church, so we didn't put much thought in the facility itself. It was a functional meeting space, but hardly inviting. But over the years, dreams of "bigger and better" faded, and we gradually began to realize that God may have deliberately placed us
here for a reason. And so we decided it was time to begin doing something to make it more user-friendly. And we did a pretty good job--on the inside.

The outside, however, is quite a different story. The church's exterior would be a blight on skid road, let alone the heart of Brigham City's prime redevelopment district. Chipped, drab white paint unceremoniously slapped over the original frontier-town masonry; windows boarded up with rotting plywood; and a number of haphazard add-ons and fixes to add-ons that make it the architectural equivalent of Frankenstein's monster. And don't get me started on the collection of junk that had accumulated in hidden corners and behind sheds.

Our flaws were not so noticeable until the two buildings on either side of ours were acquired by the city and demolished recently. Our new-found nakedness has exposed us as an unsightly wart that is now the only thing between the well-manicured city hall, and a historic building that just underwent a million-dollar renovation. And then...there's us, and our sorry little structure, now sticking out like a sore thumb.

The trouble is, we're not just dealing with a shabby exterior. We are also dealing with the reputation that Living Hope has acquired in Brigham City, one of Utah's crown-jewel Mormon settlements. Mormonism, despite its more modern ecumenical rhetoric, still teaches that all other churches are of the devil (harlot daughters of the great whore of Babylon, and all that), and apparently Living Hope is actually the devil's
favorite, because of our history of challenging Mormon faith claims. Whenever a local asks me, "So, where do you work?" it invariably throws an awkward wrench into the conversation. It's especially uncomfortable when I'm getting my hair cut. Not only does the conversation stop, but the girl has very sharp things in her hand, moving rapidly in close proximity to some arteries that I'm particularly fond of.

Anyway, the only things missing from our building (in the minds of most Brigham City residents, anyway) are the black clouds and lightning hovering over our roof, the bats flitting around, the unearthly wails, and the creepy organ music emanating from no where in particular. (Cue
Fugue in D minor.) In other words, our exterior closely resembles what the town already thinks of us.

It does raise the question: should we be overly concerned about what we look like? Should we even
care what the town thinks of us? Some might say, "don't judge a book by its cover," or "beauty should come from within," and so forth. And more to the point, we are surrounded by a unique culture here in Utah that is obsessed with appearances, often at the expense of substance...whitewashed tombs, as Someone once put it. If we care too much about our outward appearance, aren't we just falling into that same hypocritical mindset, when we should instead be striving for authenticity?

If our goal was simply to bolster our reputation, or look pretty for its own sake, then you could argue that. Nevertheless, a number of us have recently come under the conviction that the neglect of the outside of our church building is, in essence, the equivalent of telling our community that we don't care about them, that we don't really want to engage with them. If we ask ourselves whether our building's current appearance is a potential stumbling block to the ministry we believe God is calling us to, we have no choice but to answer
"Yes." We may as well spray-paint "KEEP OUT" on our boarded-up windows. Besides, we're not talking about needing expensive new clothes for the church; it's more like just combing our hair and putting on a clean shirt. It falls under the category of "the least we could do."

So most nights the past few weeks I've come home shaking bits and pieces of old putty, insulation, and shards of broken glass out of my hair and clothes. Jim and I have removed the nasty plywood on the outside, and the insulation panels on the inside, to reveal four large turn-of-the-century metal mullion windows, that a couple years ago we didn't even know existed. Of the 80 panes of glass, about 30 were broken or missing, so we've purchased the glass ourselves, spent hours upon hours chiseling out broken windows held in by 100-year-old petrified glazier's putty (I dare you to show me a tougher, more indestructible material. I wonder if NASA has considered it for spacecraft re-entry heat shields.)

We play Glenn Miller Orchestra on Pandora internet radio as we work. And with each window that gets exposed, repaired, and cleaned, the sanctuary is transformed. I had thought it was classy and inviting before; now, with all these windows, it is truly spectacular. And the unexpected thing that intrigues me is that we can now look outside and see Main Street--and be reminded of why God has placed us here. And Main Street can see
in--and perhaps discover that we don't have a blood-stained altar made of skulls and femurs.

This weekend we also had a work party at the church. There were maybe 20 of us. Windows were cleaned, mullions were painted, weeds were whacked, a door was replaced, old lumber de-nailed, garbage was cleared out. And we've got more work to do--removing ratty old paint from where it never should have gone in the first place, putting paint where it desperately needs it...I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Our goal is to have our "mini-makeover" completed by the time Peach Days hits (September 11th) when literally tens of thousands of people will be filing past our building on their way to tour the city's remodeled historical building.

Peach days...that's another blog entry altogether. Suffice it to say that we'll have our own building open for Peach Days as well, serving water and popcorn and giving people a place to get out of the sun for a while, and perhaps be refreshed in other ways. This year the challenge will be to get people
in the door, and we'd like to remove any hindrance to that.

Our goal really is to engage our community. We want to be salt and light here in Brigham City. We want to be accessible here on Main Street. We want people to know they are welcome and that they are wanted. That is at the heart of what we are striving to do, including the cosmetic improvements to our building. It's not to draw attention to ourselves; rather, we want to point to the God we serve. A God that lives on Main Street, ready to intersect with every person that walks by. We know that this is
His heart, and it's becoming ours, too.


  1. But, I like "the creepy organ music emanating from nowhere in particular!"

    I do not think you are doing it to show off, I think you are doing it to demonstrate that you care. Keep it up!

  2. This post is worthless without pictures!

    Love you guys. Keep up the good work -- remember your church represents Christ -- both the inside and out.