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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Tribute to a Church 1


University Reformed Church 3D ModelFrom January 1, 1999 to August 31, 2005 I served as, first Campus Minister, and later Senior Pastor of a church in Ann Arbor called University Reformed Church.  This church began in 1958/59 with a part time missionary as pastor across the street from the campus of the University of Michigan.  The building was constructed in the early '60's by famous architect Gunnar Birkerts and won a major architectural award then, and again later in 2004 won the Michigan AIA 25 Year Award.  (Here is a pretty cool 3D imaging of the building from which the photo on this page is from.)  The interesting thing about the building was that though it was an award winning building, and quite a feat in many ways (like the fact that the entire building is poured cement), it had a few design issues that caused some ongoing "practical" difficulties (skylights in the 60's, drainage issues, heating).  It was also a very modernistic design architecturally with clean straight lines, stark white walls, vaulted ceilings, and a 4.5 second echo - great for a capello singing.  (I had a conversation with Gunnar at the awards, and he had a very interesting theological take on the architecture of the building - mirroring some of the tiered roof structure of Dutch architecture, and maintaining perfect symetry and beautiful clean, straight lines to represent the intricacies of the Dutch Reformed Theological tradition among other things. Truth be told, I had a love-hate relationship with the building.  Sometimes it felt like people worshipped it for its architecture and placed the "church" as facility above "church" as gathered people of God.  One of the questions I've often asked is about the relative value of church buildings.  For most churches, the building costs a tremendous amount - more than staff, ministry, and missions combined.  I wonder if we wouldn't be better off finding alternative ways of worshipping/ gathering and creative partnerships with local businesses, community centers, etc and using the finances that facilities cost for more missional work.  That is, unless the building itself can become a kind of community center (look for my upcoming post on Cultural Engagement: from Temple to Synagogue).  The current church in which I work has a wonderful facility.  I also have a love-hate relationship with this building.  The debt-load is large.  The ongoing repairs create a virtual sucking sound that promises to be increasingly loud.  We're moving towards missional community center philosophically, and that's good.  But buildings tend to more about us, for us, to make us feel somehow like we've arrived in the community, and yet often they sit empty 6 days of out of the week and merely wall us off from our surroundings.  Recently, the University Reformed Church building was sold to another church (Harvest Mission Community Church) while URC the church is going to live and function differently, starting off in the Michigan Union where the church actually began.  Is it getting back to its roots?  Could this be a redo/ restart?  Will they build a building again?  Should they?  Those are good questions, and as the former pastor, it's not my role to answer them anymore.  Just to ponder them and offer the questions.

In my next post, I'm going to write a true story as a tribute to University Reformed Church - the building.

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