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Mission without a mortgage

Riverside, a church community in Spring Branch, Texas, meets for worship at the Emerald Rainbow Family Fun Center, with its ‘20,000 ginormous square feet of fun and parties.’ That’s because the group choses not to own any buildings.

Mark Sobhani
The Rev. Scott Heare is the founding pastor of the Riverside missional community.

March 2, 2010

The first clue that a visitor is not attending a typical Christian church is the indoor climbing wall and batting cage. But that’s just part of Sunday worship with the people of Riverside, a missional community in the small Texas town of Spring Branch.

The Rev. Scott Heare, Riverside’s founding pastor, sometimes makes jokes about the surroundings in his sermons -- the lion and lamb painted on the back wall have not escaped notice, for example.

But the location wasn’t chosen to provide sermon fodder. Nor are the Riverside’s leaders seeking to move out of this unconventional space as soon as they have the money to do so. Riverside intentionally does not own any property.

The missional church community called Riverside was planted by Alamo Heights United Methodist Church, a century-old church in San Antonio, Texas. Alamo Heights has an impressive church building. But for six years, its offshoot’s offices, worship spaces and outreach ministries have been housed in rented buildings spread over several miles in this semi-rural community.

The reason they rent space instead of owning property is because they have chosen to be, or are led to be, “incarnational, more than attractional,” Heare said.

“That means we are everywhere, and not just in one place. But, we’re also willing to move at any time. If God says we need to buy or build a building and put a rollercoaster behind it, we’d say OK,” he said.

Riverside rents the center each Sunday for two morning worship services. During the week, the space is filled with an inflatable playground.

On a recent wintry Sunday, about 250 people gathered to sing, pray, worship, and enjoy the easygoing fellowship that warms the Emerald Rainbow Family Fun Center (its Web site boasts “20,000 ginormous square feet of fun and parties!”).

The atmosphere in the cavernous gym is decidedly warm and informal. Most worshippers are in jeans and few are reluctant to sing, sway and raise their hands in praise. This morning they belt out “Sing to the King” as words flash on a large video screen.

“My prayer,” Heare tells the assembled, “is that you will join Riverside in getting back to the basics that church is, to begin again in the heart of Jesus.”

“We’re going to have to reformat ourselves,” he says, inviting the congregation to commit to Riverside’s principles of mission and service.

“In the next few weeks we’re going to talk about buildings, family, small groups, Africa -- and ask you to take your part.”

Although Riverside places mission and service over mortgages and building funds, church leaders say that not owning a building has a cost.

Financially, Heare said, it might make more sense to own a building. The combined cost of Riverside’s many leases easily could equal a mortgage, but the community does not hear a call to plant themselves in one building.

“When we pray about it, God says no,” he said.

Creating the temporary Sunday worship space takes work crews at least an hour. They set up the rows of metal folding chairs, a stage big enough to hold a five-piece praise band and video screen and put up drapes that define the space and help with sound.

“All that setting up and taking down equals a lot of fatigue,” Heare said.

“There are many days when they wish they had a building,” says the Rev. David McNitzky, senior pastor at Alamo Heights and Heare’s mentor. “But the freedom from having a building enables them to keep their focus on people and on their community.”

Besides local missions, Riverside supports an orphanage in Uganda and projects on the Texas/Mexico border. At the service, Heare reminds the congregation that the goal is for Riverside to give away 50 percent of its budget to support local and international mission work. Today, Riverside is able to give away 23 percent.

At the end of the service, everyone pitches in to fold chairs, remove drapes and disassemble the stage.

“We’ve got it down to about 45 minutes,” said prayer leader Linda Marceau, who lingered to meet and pray with congregants as the building begins to turn back into the family fun center.

“We won’t leave,” Heare said, “until God leads us.”