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A Church for the Unchurched

A Church for the Unchurched

Young multi-site Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., leases and builds out its first semi-permanent home

The most recent 10-week average attendance for Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., is 5,226. Quite a feat of drawing people in, especially considering that attendance began with 121 in 2006.

Young Elevation Church has grown so much that it now inhabits three multi-site locations including its new Matthews location—a leased big box retail store that began as a K-Mart and then morphed into an Ashley Furniture warehouse before Elevation took the title of tenant.

Aside from its staggering growth and obvious youth—both of the Elevation movement itself and its leaders who are in their 20s and early 30s—the freshest thing about Elevation is that it’s not a typical church. Coined a “light club” by nationwide designer Visioneering Studios Architecture President Mel McGowan, it’s more like a nightclub meeting a higher purpose of spreading the Gospel and integrating into its community. Along with clean lines and a minimalist approach to Elevation’s storefront retail space, visitors find a modern entry canopy and a shimmering LED panel treatment. “By day this [building façade] looks like a mild-mannered anchor tenant, but at night the dynamic façade will visually scream to the unchurched driving by,” McGowan says.

Once inside, “The ultramodern and ethereal interiors playfully [offer] a non-churchy ‘light club’ environment that is designed to lift the spirit and take people to a different eternal and experiential destination,” McGowan describes.

Elevation’s new Matthews buildout is helping Pastor Steven Furtick in his method of ministry, which McGowan describes as “razor-like in its relentless focus on reaching people far from God.” And he adds, “As we listened to these dynamic next-generation leaders, we recognized that they were not in the least bit interested in creating anything that looked, tasted or felt like a typical church.”

An Atypical Approach
Elevation Church is uncharacteristic of many churches in that its goal was never to acquire a fixed location as a hub for ministry. Instead, its building-less, loud, live-music-pulsating approach?“Earplugs are not uncommon to see in people’s ears,” says Operations Pastor Josh Blackson?fits most readily into a multi-site model that’s based off demand and need. At the heart of the Elevation experience is Furtick’s preaching?which requires superb video capture and playback. The video is then shown at Elevation’s other two meeting hubs, at the McGlohon Theatre in uptown Charlotte and the Providence High School in Charlotte.

Elevation’s Matthews campus, then, is just part of what McGowan describes as “an arsenal of strategies that would facilitate 10,000 people worshipping under the vision of Elevation Church, that people far from God will be filled with life in Christ.” It is a place where the young church can achieve its high definition video camera lock down shot of Furtick as he preaches?an essential shot to physically harness the video which is, at this point, simply driven by car to the other multi-sites for playback.

A vision like this transcends any one building and takes attendee walk and drive distances out of the equation. It brings the ministry to where the people are. As such, “Part of our task was to refine the visual brand of Elevation Church and to transfer that from print/web into a visceral 4-D (sound being the fourth dimension) prototype experience that would represent a DNA that could be transplanted in multiple sites,” McGowan says.

While Elevation’s dogged approach to reaching the lost is iconoclastic, so is the team approach that helped to build out the Matthews location. Bryan Miles, vice president of consulting with builder Cogun Inc. of North Lima, Ohio, reports that his firm is becoming a leader in the integrated project delivery (IPD) approach to building that was used on Elevation Church, whereby all the key players and contributors to a building project?in this case the church, the architect, the builder, the audio-visual designer, and the environmental graphics and wayfinding creator?work together from the beginning to conceptualize a structure, design it, and build it.

McGowan, too, says his firm found the collaborative team effort present in the designing and building of Elevation Church to be ideal. “The team convened during our initial week-long workshop and ‘landed the plane’ in a highly interactive collaboration which continued through the dream-to-dedication-day process,” he says.

As an example of the success of this collaboration on the Elevation Church project, McGowan reports that in developing the initial floorplan concepts, the team simultaneously considered guest flow and experience—at the same time that existing structural columns and plumbing needs were considered. “Rather than waiting for 100% completion of working drawings, detailed cost budgets and estimates were provided at various stages throughout the process. This allowed value engineering decisions to be made by the entire team based on a clear set of priorities which did not compromise the end guest experience,” he adds.

From the church’s perspective, Blackson says the team collaboration delivered a win-win: “As a result of the collaborative effort, we were clear with what the space needed to be in the forefront.” Blackson, as it turns out, was no stranger to helping see a facility through from planning to dedication. Before accepting his role at Elevation, he was a devoted Elevation attendee working as vice president of operations for a healthcare company.

A Unified Build-Out
While the collaborative IPD approach to building Elevation was smooth, the pitfalls inherent in building out an existing space presented some potholes along the way. Challenges included the existing height requirements of the building and the structural load of existing steel, according to Armando Fullwood, president of the IPD Association and principal of Harrisburg, N.C.-based Design 2020, the project’s audio, video, lighting and acoustics designer and consultant.

Design 2020’s role was to establish performance criteria for acoustics, room control, noise isolation and sight lines in coordination with the renovation project. As Visioneering worked to ensure a beautiful and true-to-vision internal environment, Cogun worked to control costs of the build out tied to the churches desired budget, while Design 2020 aided church staff with audio-visual and lighting gear selection.

The IPD approach afforded Design 2020 equal say and share in the project, Fullwood reports. “Traditionally, someone would have designed it and then the audio-visual-lighting guys come in afterward and say, ‘This won’t work.’ We had to have everybody [involved] up front, with give and take. And then the budget was always in mind,” he says.

Much as IPD ensures a shared vision from all players in the beginning, vision is also credited with helping fund the Elevation build-out. According to Blackson, “When we launched into our Dominate capital campaign?to dominate the city with the Gospel?Pastor Furtick was leading with vision.” Yet, the young church didn’t know for certain whether God’s plan was to use that money on multiple locations or to help secure one semi-permanent site to aid in video capture. The young staff had its eyes on the Matthews location, but the first time it tried to secure it, the deal fell through. “Our congregation pledged $6.4 million not knowing what we were going to build,” Blackson states. “It’s not the facility, it’s the vision. That’s why it was successful. Pastor Furtick used the story of Moses going into the Promised Land with the Israelites. God just said go and he would show. So to reach people far from God?our vision?we’re just going to go.”

The second time around, Blackson reports that the church was able to secure a significantly cheaper lease rate. “God has been resourcing His movement in His time,” he adds.

Once the site was secured, the Elevation IPD team sought to make the most of additional money-saving opportunities. A significant portion of the existing cement floor of the 42,235-square-foot building was used instead of buying new, for example, and much of the ceiling was simply left open and unfinished, limiting the use of new materials. Energy- and environment-saving choices, too, were consciously included. The backlit resin panels that figure prominently in the interior design, for example, are made of 40% pre-consumer recycled resin. And the Shaw carpet tiles used throughout the building are constructed with Ecoworx backing, a 100% recyclable PVC material. LED lighting used at the entry and worship portals also helps reduce energy consumption and facility-wide energy costs.

Yet, as often happens in refurbished retail space, the Elevation team was faced with 16-foot ceilings that aren’t high enough for worship space. “Speakers won’t hang from that. The line of sight and sound will stink,” Miles says.

To remedy the space for worship, the team had to move one large supporting column in the building. But as Miles reports, it wasn’t easy. “The column in the middle of your worship space supports a lot. There’s a lot of liability. The ceiling goes over people sitting down, side by side, at one time. So, pending the spans, to move just one column could exceed $40,000 by the time it is designed and physically replaced,” he says.

The solution Cogun and the team decided upon for moving the column entailed constructing an enormous beam that holds up the whole area. “Churches have to face the fact that they’ll have to bring these [existing] buildings up to code, but there could be significant savings, and it’s possibly quicker to renovate when the building is already shelled in,” Miles says.

Elevation’s approach to renovating the existing space was a bit off kilter compared to the typical scenario. As Miles reports, “It’s a different understanding of ownership. By the old model of doing things, a church goes out and buys a piece of property and enhances it by building out the piece of land the best it can. Elevation decided to lease it, make tenant improvements, and can walk away later if they feel like it makes better sense for their ministry needs and goals. It’s a fascinating concept that I’m seeing more and more churches considering. The challenge is, if you lease it you don’t own it, [and] you may have a hard time getting a loan.”

A Vision-Centric Hotbed
What will the lost, seekers and followers find within the walls of Elevation’s semi-permanent home? A sensory experience that doesn’t attempt to make a commercial space feel like a typical church.

Inside is a pre-function lobby, volunteer headquarters, restrooms and an EKidz ministry that includes a worship auditorium and classrooms for children 6 weeks-5th grade. In addition, the interior contains uniquely named offices called The Hub and The Lab, as well as two conference rooms called The Garage, featuring garage doors that open to the corridor. The Garage area also doubles as overflow seating for the weekend.

And then, of course, Elevation’s new location includes a 900-seat club space that includes a stage, a backstage, a production/recording suite, and green rooms.

Walking throughout the hallways, visitors will find custom-tailored environmental graphics and wayfinding signs crafted by PlainJoe Studios of Corona, Calif., as well as a history wall?an elaborate panel of images describing the birth and movement of Elevation’s mission to spread the Gospel. “The pictures throughout the building are ours, captured, instead of stock art. Every Sunday morning at each campus we capture fresh pictures,” Blackson says.

Outdoors, a visitor welcome tent is set up so church volunteer staff can greet first-time guests and show them inside. Afterward, exit doors on the side of the building lead attendees to a weather-protected loading dock area. Here, first-time guests are honored with a gift for coming and regular attendees can get connected to a community group or volunteer team.

Between the Matthews building and the church’s other two locations, Elevation Church will offer up 11 total worship experiences this fall. “We’re getting a whole different demographic of people on Saturday nights and Sunday nights than we are on Sunday mornings,” offers Blackson.

And he adds that Elevation’s young staff relishes the blessing of helping orchestrate its growth and movement from the very beginning. “We’re three years old. Pastor Furtick is 29 and our executive pastor, Chunks Corbett, is 32. We are a young staff, and we were well-guided throughout this process.”

Some Quirks and Perks of Leasing Retail Space

Some interesting things can occur when a church decides to lease space and become an anchor tenant in a retail strip center. For Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., they weren’t allowed to have the word “church” in their signage, just “Elevation.”

“We couldn’t have drive-by advertising or anything more than simple brand awareness,” says Josh Blackson, operations pastor for Elevation, “because we’re renting the space.”

There are some upsides to renting, though. As Tim Cool, president and chief solutions officer of Charlotte-based Cool Solutions Group, a church facilities management and consulting company, reports, the church will not be responsible for maintaining the roof and exterior walls since the facility is leased and is part of a larger shopping center.

Accessibility and parking are also ideal in a strip center. In Elevation’s case, the shopping center sits on a major road at the interchange of an Interstate. “It will have great visibility and is easy to get to,” Cool says. In addition, the strip center’s plaza offers parking, and church staff is working with an adjacent bowling establishment to strike up a shared parking agreement.

Public transportation is also nearby. Elevation Church is accessible via the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS). “As opposed to most church buildings, which are tucked away behind empty parking lots and largely under-utilized 6.5 days a week, this one sits prominently in the marketplace,” says Mel McGowan, president of Visioneering Studios Architecture, nationwide, the project’s designer.


Countertops: casarstone
Resin Panels: 3Form
Acoustical Ceilings: Armstrong
Resilient Flooring: Azrock & Lonseal
Carpet: Interface & Shaw
Paint: Sherwin Williams
Plastic Laminate: Formica, Arpa, Octopus
Acoustic Products: www.thewaveproducts.com

A/V/L Highlights:
Audio: NEXO GEOS1230 main speaker; Martin Audio WS218X subwoofer; Lab.gruppen main speaker amplifiers; ETA power distribution; Shure wireless microphone system with handheld transmitter; Shure IEM transmitter; Sennheiser IEM transmitter; Yamaha M7CL-48 32-channel digital mixing console
Video: Da-Lite and Draper front projection screens; Digital Projection lens for projector; Digital Projection 8,000-lumen DLP video projector; Panasonic plasma monitors; Panasonic cameras; Gefen video converter
Lighting: Jands Vista 13 PC-based lighting control console; ETC dimming racks and module; Rosco gobos

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