Northside resurrects old Methodist chapel

aspecht@newsobserver.comApril 23, 2013 

— Pews are about the last thing Northside Community Church wanted at its new building.

The steeple had to go, too. And the stained glass?

“We let the Methodists keep it,” Northside pastor Adrian Dixon said.

Northside, like many fast-growing contemporary churches, has outgrown a handful of small spaces it’s rented over its 10-year existence. Now it is moving to a 70-year-old Methodist chapel in downtown Knightdale that until recently represented the very traditions it’s made a point of shedding.

Developers say such unlikely moves are becoming increasingly common as membership numbers decline at mainline denominational churches.

“Some congregations have died off or are no longer viable from an economic standpoint, so they’re willing to sell their building,” said Bill Steere, a director for WLP Associates in Michigan, which consulted Northside through renovation planning. “So a lot of churches are then finding ways to repurpose existing buildings.”

Northside saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by relocating to the building vacated by Knightdale United Methodist when the Methodist congregation moved across town to a larger, new facility. By refurbishing a property that’s already properly zoned, the church also avoided the bureaucratic headaches that could have resulted from trying to build a new structure.

“Local governments won’t say this out loud, but, for revenue purposes, they’d much rather a business (than a church) move to a prime location in town,” said Brad Oaster, an architect with Harvestime Facility Solutions in Colorado, which has advised several local congregations such as Hope Community Church in Raleigh.

Location, location, location

Knightdale United Methodist’s location was the key selling point for Northside, which now nests directly across the street from a multi-million dollar park project in downtown Knightdale. The 70-acre park will open this July, followed in the next few months by a YMCA, an 800-lot subdivision, and, town officials hope, new businesses.

Once downtown development gains momentum, Northside may even become a local merchant by selling coffee. “It would be a great opportunity for us to reach out to local parents who bring their kids (to the park) right across the street from us,” Dixon said.

Dixon doubts coffee outreach would have any affect if Northside hadn’t spent more than $400,000 on renovations to shed the chapel’s traditional look. Northside makes a point to keep traditional church trappings at arm’s length to appeal to the unchurched and disenfranchised. The Knightdale church already downplays its Advent Christian denomination, features instrumental music, and encourages casual dress.

In that vein, Northside stocked the sanctuary with folding chairs and donated the pews to a church in Manteo damaged by Hurricane Sandy. The church also replaced stained glass windows with clear glass windows and muntins that resemble crosses.

“So people can see in and know we have nothing to hide,” Dixon explained. “And so we can look out at the community we’re called to serve.”

Outside the building, Northside removed the steeple and closed off what once was the front entrance. The front lobby is now the stage for Northside’s worship band, while the main church entrance is now at the back of the building.

Northside also removed a brick marquee from the front lawn. The church plans to replace the marquee with a sign “that conveys this isn’t a traditional church,” Dixon says.

Following a trend

VisioDei church in Raleigh made similar adjustments when it relocated to a building formerly occupied by Unity Church of the Triangle on Whitaker Mill Road.

“When we walked into that building, it had padded pews, an arched wood ceiling, and a stage with a baptismal,” VisioDei pastor Jeff Ramsey said. “We thought ‘Man this is perfect. We could make this retro.’”

Struggling churches may want to follow suit, said Oaster, the church consultant in Colorado.

“Tradition and symbolism mean nothing to the next generation,” Oaster said. “We build churches now to look like community centers. Nobody wants to be involved in an institution. Nobody trusts institutions anymore.”

In his sermon on April 14, when Northside dedicated its new building, Dixon referenced the importance of structural and spiritual renewal.

“We’re dedicating this building to be a place of refuge,” Dixon said. “God is in the business of renovation and redemption.”

Specht: 919-829-4826

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