Things change, and so do buildings.

There are a few department stores left. But there are also lots of big box spaces available for rent in malls across America. Developers are looking at the old boxes, and trying to figure out how to split them up. The Montgomery Ward in Iowa City, where I had my first regular job, is now broken into several specialty stores, and there’s a huge fitness center in what used to be the upstairs warehouse. Sears and Kmart have closed more than half their stores over the last five years–and many more in the last ten years. By contrast, Starbucks Coffee had just 55 stores in 1989, and now has well over 20,000. Toys R Us, Younkers, and Radio Shack are all gone.  The fastest growing retailers are of course those focused on shopping from your electronic device: Amazon, Wayfair,, Bass Pro Shops, and the British-based Primark.

Businesses don’t look like they used to. In 1974, the Muskegon Mall in Muskegon was a great idea about to be built. In 1989 it was the most popular shopping area in the county. In 2001, the Lakes Mall went up south of town, and the Muskegon Mall closed, to be torn down two years later. It had a lifespan of just over a quarter of a century, and it seems likely that the Lakes Mall may have about the same.

In 2019, those that succeed with brick and mortar are focused on creating a positive experience for their customers: a stylish space, comfy seating, a buzzy atmosphere. The new feel of Western Avenue is a perfect example: no chains except the bank and hotel, but cozy shops and places to enjoy locally based food and drink. Pop-up chalets are designed to be seasonal and tiny, so there are lots of creative individual entrepreneurs. The world is not what it once was. What worked great in 1989 doesn’t work the same today.

In 1928, Community built a new church building to replace the original that burned down. Thirty years later, the expectations of the community and of ministry had changed, and in 1958 a new education section went up. Thirty more years, and we found structural problems with the old sanctuary. We turned it into an opportunity to build a new sanctuary that could do a better job meeting the church’s needs in 1989: it was larger, more comfortable, and had a larger gathering space, accessible stalls in the bathrooms, and really grew the profile of the building.

Since 1989, many churches have declined, and many have closed. New churches have arrived; many of those have flourished, and some have failed. At Community, we have had hard times and good times, successes and failures. We have had times when there was no youth group, while currently we have a fairly strong group. We have had times of conflict when people left, and times of stability when new people connected. These things happen to every church, but through it all, we have had remarkable stability. We are truly a community church, and we are in a relatively stable community.

But things have indeed changed. In 1989, well-to-do businesspeople felt a civic duty to attend and support their church. Multiple generations had grown up with a sense of expectation that they should attend worship, tithe, and volunteer to support their church. A smaller percent of women was involved in full time work outside the home, and women provided the volunteer backbone for church programs.

Some people choose to worry about the future of churches. I choose instead to expect change, and to anticipate how we can continue to be in effective ministry for decades to come. The Lord has great things in mind, to keep changing the world for the better through Community. But what are they? The history of brick-and-mortar businesses in Muskegon gives us some good hints. Growth in the future will depend on creating a great experience for those who come. Part of that is the worship and the programming. We have more groups, and stronger programming for all ages, than we have had in recent memory. We are more focused than ever on providing excellent welcome, quality worship for multiple generations, and hospitality.

But our space conveys a different message. It says that we haven’t changed since the glory days of the Muskegon Mall. It says that we don’t want to make it easy for a young family to find the Sunday School rooms and nursery, or the office, or even the right entry door to the building. It says that this is not a place where you want to sit down and have a conversation, or enjoy a cup of coffee with friends. We were content with those messages thirty years ago. They weren’t the messages we were looking for in a church. But in a deeply divided and disconnected world, people are really hoping to find in church a deeper, warmer welcome; safety and comfort and peace, and flexibility.

That’s why we’ve been working hard to develop a plan for our building, not to get larger, but to be more welcoming, friendly, and enjoyable. The first time guest needs to be able to identify the main entrance easily, and if necessary to drop someone off without getting rained or snowed on. They need to enter a space that is welcoming, without good flow and no bottlenecks, with a clear delineation of worship space, with a clear, easy path to all the things they need: restrooms, coffee, office, nursery, youth rooms, children’s space, and fellowship hall. If they see someone they know, they need to be able to strike up a conversation that might lead to sitting comfortably in a cozy space, or laughing standing around a tall table.

Pretty soon, we’ll be engaging with the congregation again for your feedback on our early concepts. We’ve been working with an architect who has plenty of experience in churches, who is working on a plan for all our spaces. We’re a long way from figuring out the costs or putting together a construction plan. We will engage you much more along the way. But I wanted to share with you why this matters. It matters because we want to continue to be effective at doing God’s work in our community for a long time, in a changing world.