Austin Stone Community Church is not new to Westlake. They have been meeting as a church in the community for more than three years. Starting this Sunday (October 7th), however, they will now have a permanent home, and, in doing so, they have sort of flipped the script.
The Old Space
For years Austin Stone, like many other churches, has been gathering on Sundays in a rented space (a local school). We’ve seen this situation a lot over the last twenty-thirty years. Many churches meet in spaces that are not being used during the weekends—elementary schools, strip centers, office buildings, auditoriums, etc. They are essentially offering the businesses and organizations that own those spaces an opportunity to turn their non-productive hours into revenue in the form of rent.
What most churches do in this situation is rent until they raise the money for their own space. Frequently they buy some land and build their own custom facility or they purchase an empty church building that has been outgrown or mismanaged. They then own a facility that is used exclusively for church and everyone (staff and congregation alike) experiences some new-found joy in the fact that they are no longer using someone else’s space. Let’s face it, setting up and tearing down for Sunday morning service (chairs, stage, sound, greeting area, children’s rooms, etc.) every single week is no fun.
A New Idea
The Austin Stone West fellowship began to express a desire for a new space. They longed for something permanent. Setting up and tearing down every week begins to wear on your volunteers. Not to mention that having a permanent space sends a message to the community that you aren’t going anywhere—that you’re invested and committed.
Around a year ago the old Apple building at 916 Capital of Texas Hwy came to the attention of the team charged with finding a new home. It’s a big space–a really big space. Some would ask “why does a church need a space that large?”
This is where things get interesting because a church doesn’t need a space that large. It’s an office building. Who needs an office building? Companies need an office building. It seemed to make no sense. But, it did make sense. Just not the kind of sense churches usually make.
For the past thirty years (or so), churches have been helping businesses, schools and other organizations raise additional revenue by renting out their space for worship on the weekends (when they didn’t need those areas). Now Austin Stone began to consider whether they could buy a large office building and flip the script by renting out their unused offices and sharing their lobby and meeting spaces during the weekdays. The revenue generated from doing this could be used to pay for the facility, fund ministries, and outreach.
The more they considered the idea, the more sense it made and the more convinced they became that this was where God was leading this campus. In just over a year they were able to fundraise enough to obtain the building and build it out according to their needs.
A Tour of the New Campus
I arrived at the new Westlake campus earlier this week to meet with Communications Director John Yeng and campus pastor Ross Lester. The two spent some time giving me a tour of the building and talking to me some about how this all came together so quickly.
“We began praying for a space about three years ago,” Pastor Lester informed me. “It was born out of listening to the needs of our congregation.”
Space For Kids
As they showed me around the space, something stood out. The most square footage and effort seemed to have been put into the children’s areas. The Pre-K wing (yes, it is an entire wing) offered not only nurseries and many classrooms for different age groups, but also a large art room filled with easels, craft items, and large tables.
The K-5th Grade wing (again “wing” is the appropriate term) not only offered up the individual classrooms, but also a very large room where the entire group can meet before splitting off into smaller groups. Each of the small rooms also has a section of wall that is painted to reflect an area where someone the church supports is serving on mission (called “Goers”). Currently Austin Stone supports 147 Goers serving in more than 25 countries on long-term missions. Each of these walls is painted to show a cityscape or scene from one of the areas where Goers are serving to help show the kids a picture of what following God looks like.
Each of the kids wings have security doors that can only be accessed by staff members with badges. Parents receive a ticket with a number on it when they drop of their child (with the child getting the corresponding number) that they present after church to get the child back. It’s all very tech-savvy with I-Pads and everything. I suspect the security doors are holdovers from Apple that have been adapted for the church’s use.
Austin Stone Youth
The youth wing is a single large room, tastefully decorated and very mature in style. Pastor Lester explained that they very intentionally wanted to send the message that the church takes their youth seriously.
“These are the years where they begin to really put action to their faith and start to doing and going for God. The Youth should know that we are not surprised by what they can do. That, in fact, we expect great things from them.”
Youth have their own stage area for a worship band (complete with their own digital soundboard and lights). There is also a small kitchen area where they can serve refreshments. The room also offers some comfortable seating areas—although the vast majority of the space is wide-open.
Adult Worship Center
The main worship hall (sanctuary) was perhaps the biggest surprise to me of all. After seeing how elaborate and spacious the children and youth areas were, I was expecting the place where adult worship was going to happen to be breath-taking.
Not so much.
The worship center is a bit on the small side, seating a little over five hundred. The sound booth is on wheels and sits on the main floor just behind the last row of chairs. When I say “wheels”, I mean it sits on mobile carts and can be closed up and wheeled out easily. The stage is not overly large and has just one projection screen on the back wall for song lyrics. As I stood there, basking in my disappointment, I began to realize something. The beauty of the room was in its simplicity. There were no distractions, no fancy technology, and no tiered seating. There is nothing in that room to stand between a worshiper and the Spirit of God.
Like so many other things, the simplicity of the room was intentional.
“We wanted to demonstrate that kids are really important to us,” Pastor Lester said. “Adults don’t need fluff. If we get too many adults, we can simply add more services. But the kids…we never want to have to turn away a child because we don’t have enough space.”
John Yeng pointed my attention to an area of the ceiling at the front of the stage. “That’s the screen we use for the live-stream,” he said. “That drops down after worship and we stream the message from our downtown campus” (usually delivered by Dr. Matt Carter).
At that moment it dawned on me that Ross Lester would not be preaching every Sunday. I asked how often he would be delivering the message live. “About one out of every four Sundays I will be preaching live at this campus,” he told me.
I wondered how he felt about that, knowing that he came from being the lead pastor at large church previously.
“Frankly I love this model,” he said. “As a lead pastor, there is a lot of demand for your time–both in preparing a weekly sermon and administratively. Things that can’t wait or be put off to another time. But the main biblical priority for a pastor is to shepherd the flock. When you go from preparing for forty-plus sermons a year to around ten, it frees up a lot of time to actually pastor. I’m able to be much more present and actually live in the middle of the congregation. It’s an opportunity to really get to know our people.”
As I left the new Austin Stone campus in Westlake, I came away with an impression of the church that very much reminded me of their new building: Multi-functional, practical, intentional, a bit unconventional and with a lot of space for God.