Kyle Thompson: Ministry is more important than a building

Artist's rendering of Sharon UMC renovation

This is an early concept rendering of the urban village that Sharon UMC leaders envision on their property in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Courtesy of Sharon UMC
 

The bishop challenged them to be bold, and the leaders of Sharon United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, took the message to heart. The church is proposing to tear down its building and redevelop its property as an urban village. In this Q&A, the pastor explains the church's plans.

For 20 years, Sharon United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, faced declining membership, despite its location in one of Charlotte’s fastest-growing, upscale communities, across the street from the luxurious SouthPark mall.

Membership has declined from a peak of 1,357 in 1990 to 712 today.

So when the leadership began to discuss renovating the building, with its distinctive ski-slope steeple, the Rev. Kyle Thompson began to think even bigger.

“What if we could create an environment where we would do life together, where sacred and secular would intersect, where we could be the soul of SouthPark?” he said. “What if we could start from scratch?”

The church is now partnering with real estate developer Childress Klein Properties to transform the 7-acre site into a mixed-use development featuring residences, retail, offices, a hotel and an indoor fitness/recreation center.

The development will leave room for the church, which plans to build new worship space and other facilities, including a performing arts center. Financial plans are still being worked out, including the ownership model.

Sharon United Methodist hopes to break ground in time for its 50th anniversary in 2016.

Kyle ThompsonThompson, the senior pastor, spoke with Faith & Leadership contributor Ken Garfield about the project, and the theology and vision driving it. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Can you trace the evolution of this project, and how it came to be?

I’ve been senior pastor here for three years. When I moved here, the congregation was into plans for a building project to renovate the facility. It’s 45 years old; it needed a lot of work. We were looking at the opportunity to expand, possibly to create a contemporary worship space. We do both services, traditional and contemporary, in one space right now, and it’s not ideal for contemporary worship.

You had a lot of folks who were excited, and a lot of folks who weren’t really sure. They’ve been through some building projects before.

In the midst of that, in 2013, we had our Annual Conference for the Western North Carolina Conference. Bishop [Larry] Goodpaster challenged us to be bold in our ministries. We’re anticipating closing 30 percent of our [United Methodist] churches in the next decade. The leadership is looking at what we can do to avoid that. Part of his message was that we need to be bold.

I went home that night and I couldn’t sleep. I was thinking, as far as our building project went, “Is that really a bold thing to do? To renovate? Possibly expand?”

The vision that God has given us is to be the spiritual crossroads of SouthPark [located in the southeast part of Charlotte]. We want to be the spiritual crossroads, but what if we could also be the literal crossroads?

I came back after Annual Conference and went to the building planning team. I said, “Folks, I think God’s putting something on my heart that I just want to bring to you and see what you think about it. Why don’t we stop talking about renovations? Why don’t we stop talking about additions and really look at how we’re charged to work on the campus, the physical campus? What can we do to help us meet our vision to be the spiritual crossroads -- the literal crossroads -- of SouthPark?”

I said, “What if we could start from scratch? If we’re going to build this church from the ground floor up, what if we were able to do a mixed-use development, where the church would be the anchor tenant, and people lived on the property, they worked on the property, they shopped on the property, they ate on the property and worked out on the property?

“What if we could create an environment where we would do life together, where sacred and secular would intersect, where we could be the soul of SouthPark?”

I knew I was on the right track when one of the ladies on the building planning team took all of her notes with the renovations and everything, threw it over her shoulder and said, “Let’s do it.”

We went through a 20-year slide when we lost half our congregation. No one’s to blame for that; we’re not pointing fingers. One day, we woke up and said, “The community’s changed, and we haven’t changed. We’ve lost half the congregation.”

It’s been a wake-up cry of “We really need to be relevant to our community.” I love the [idea of] “If you build it, they will come.”

But this is about more than a building. We see the building as a tool for ministry. Our real work is in taking our ministries and examining them and making them more relevant for our community.

Q: What other alternatives were considered to try to revive the church before settling on this plan?

Let’s renovate. Let’s expand. We’ve tried hiring different staff members, tried different ministry programs. I think it’s what most churches try to do, but we weren’t connecting with these approaches solely.

Q: Why has the church been in decline over a long period of time?

I think we lost touch with our community, and who they are. We’ve studied how institutions go through different life cycles. We’re at the point that, while we still do outreach ministries, it’s easy to get internally focused. Some of that was going on -- not intentionally, but I think that’s a part of it.

Q: Did you consider selling the land and moving?

Absolutely. We considered all options. That was one of the options some of the developers tried to push on us as well. But we can’t be the spiritual crossroads of SouthPark if we’re not in SouthPark. We really believe God put us here. It’s not by mistake that 49 years ago this church was started here.

Q: So there’s a theological foundation to this?

Absolutely. We believe the people who live in SouthPark need Jesus, too.

Q: How do you expect the church to change and grow from this, not just in size but spiritually as well?

It’s a huge test of faith, because no one’s really done this before. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of fear.

But I think we’re really stepping out in faith to say that we’re willing to be bold to do what it takes to reach people for Jesus, to get out of our comfort zone. That’s been the hardest thing for folks, getting out of our comfort zone.

Q: In what way is it getting out of your comfort zone?

First of all, tearing down your church, a 45-year-old facility, is no easy task when you have people who were baptized here, grew up here, married here. We have families who have loved ones in the columbarium. This is our safe haven. To be willing to tear that down is a huge step -- to say that ministry is more important than a building.

Q: What will happen to the current columbarium?

We are going to build a new one at the new facility. In the meantime, we’re going to store the remains in a local columbarium.

Q: What will the ownership model for the new campus look like?

We are in the process of finalizing the contract with our development partner. Basically, we will own our buildings, and they will own theirs. We will share the responsibility for upkeep of common areas.

Q: What do you see as the spiritual needs of those who live, work and shop in the area?

People can be hugely successful, have everything in the world -- great family, job, material wealth -- but there’s still, in my experience, something missing within them. I think it’s an awareness of God.

Also, people who are wealthy have troubles with marriage, families, addiction, as do other people. A lot of folks might look like they’re able to financially afford what they have, but they might be in over their heads or in a great amount of debt.

There are different types of poverty. There’s physical poverty, but there’s also spiritual and emotional poverty. That’s the kind of poverty we have the opportunity to minister to here.

Surprisingly, too, we have a lot of folks who come into SouthPark who don’t live here but who are homeless. They take the bus; they’re at the mall or around the area.

Obviously, there is a huge segment of SouthPark doing well financially. But there are a lot of other folks among us who are also our neighbors.

Q: The church is searching now for a temporary home?

We’re visiting schools, theaters, all kinds of places like that. We want to stay close to where we are now. We want to be in our new worship space by Easter of 2016.

Q: In planning for a new, permanent home, do you have a sense yet of what the worship space will look like?

We’re going to have two worship spaces. We’ll have a traditional space in one of our buildings. Then we’re going to build a contemporary worship space that’s also going to be a performing arts center that we’ll open up to the community, because there’s nothing like that unless you go to uptown Charlotte.

Q: Five or 10 years from now, what’s your vision of what Sharon United Methodist can be in the community? And will the name of the church remain the same?

For now, yes, we’ll remain Sharon United Methodist Church. Our vision is to be the center of SouthPark. We want to make such a difference in our community that if we weren’t here, we would be as missed as if the mall had disappeared.

Q: As you’ve talked to the congregation about this project, given interviews to the secular press and preached about it from the pulpit, what Bible verses do you cite as motivation?

Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. …” And the Great Commandment and the Great Commission -- to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to make disciples of all people.