Vanguard Church has been around for two decades, but it has only been housed in an actual church building for six months.

Founded in 1997, Vanguard received support from its Southern Baptist denomination and initially met at Chapel Hill’s Baptist. Then the congregation rented space at Challenger Middle School and a former retail site at Flintridge Drive and Academy Boulevard.

In 2000, Vanguard found a permanent home: the former Academy Station Six movie theater near Academy and Austin Bluffs Parkway.

In recent years, Vanguard has launched two satellite campuses in nonecclesiastical sites: a Palmer Lake community that meets at the Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts and a Briargate community that meets at The Classical Academy.

Vanguard isn’t alone. Dozens of Springs churches use repurposed commercial and retail spaces, many along Academy Boulevard, which was made famous in the book “Fast Food Nation” for its miles of chain restaurants.

John Egan, a principal specializing in retail sites for the commercial real estate firm NAI Highland, sold the former Cub Foods site on Austin Bluffs, which is now home to Discovery Church.

“This is a continuing trend for these older shopping centers that have lost their anchor stores after Powers Boulevard emerged and things on Academy Boulevard changed,” Egan said. “Churches need the space and the parking.”

Across America, churches now occupy thousands of former retail spaces emptied out by recession, online shopping or changing consumer demands.

“With many retailers coming to a day of reckoning, some malls are looking to the heavens for an answer,” said a September article in Retail Dive.

“Neighborhood shopping centers battered by store vacancies are finding solace in churches,” reported the Wall Street Journal in 2017.

Commercial pros and cons

Vanguard’s 30,000-square-foot cineplex took some getting used to.

“Our feet would stick to the floor thanks to the accumulation of spilled Cokes and popcorn oil,” says pastor Kelly Williams.

A 20,000-square-foot addition made room for Vanguard’s growing congregation, and the space is also used to host events for the community and other Christian groups.

On Thursday and Friday, Vanguard will host a Multiply Conference on church planting featuring speakers from local organizations (NavPress, Outreach, Compassion International) and various Baptist groups (Southern, Colorado, and Seventh Day).

Williams says the pros of commercial buildings outweigh the cons.

“We have accessibility, plenty of foot traffic and car traffic, and proximity to other businesses,” Williams says.

“Our proximity gives us opportunities to build relationships with our neighbors and people who don’t see life in the same way we do.”

Vanguard also earns income from renting out its building to businesses and groups. The HearthStone Native coffee company operates a cafe on the site, and an Alcoholics Anonymous group meets there, too.

In summer, farmers markets are held in the huge parking lot on Sundays, allowing church members to stock up on fresh vegetables while introducing people to the church.

Williams says Vanguard’s lack of traditional ecclesiastical architecture is a positive feature for people who’ve been hurt or intimidated by traditional churches.

Meanwhile, he acknowledges that others find the setting insufficiently sacred. He also worries that commercial buildings may encourage some to treat churchgoing as simply one more consumer transaction.

After leasing for six years, the church purchased the property in 2006. Although ownership has its headaches, Williams says it’s worth it.

“There’s something sacred about owning land and having an actual physical building that people can identify with and look to for a measure of identity.”

Building a base

After serving as pastor of Rocky Mountain Calvary Chapel for a decade and a half, pastor Brian Michaels launched Springs Lighthouse in 2012.

The church initially met in two locations: Sunday morning services at Discovery Canyon High School and Saturday night services at another church.

Three years ago, Lighthouse brought people from both services together at its new location: the Flintridge and Academy site previously occupied by Vanguard, and later Community Church of the Rockies.

“If we could have afforded a building that was already a church, or if a church was willing to rent us space on Sunday mornings, we certainly would have been fine with that,” said Michaels, a reserve deputy with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department.

But commercial space is often both more readily available and more affordable, and both landlords and churches see a win-win:

• Churches enjoy affordable space while offering easy accessibility.

• Landlords can see increased traffic at businesses that churchgoers discover while seeking parking spots.

As an independent church, Lighthouse has no denomination to help fund its building.

“When you start a new church, you are trying to grow the population base for your fellowship while at the same time you’re growing the financial base,” said Michaels. “There’s no way you’ll be able to go out and purchase land to build right away.”

Michaels said Lighthouse would have liked to stay up north near Discovery Canyon, but real estate in the area is pricey, when it’s available. He says the move to Academy meant the church lost some members.

It would be much cheaper if Vanguard and Lighthouse were virtual fellowships with no geographical footprints. But both pastors say real fellowship needs physical connection. “People watch our streamed services on Facebook live,” says Michaels, “but I’ve threatened to bring a camera in my house and stream church from bed in my pajamas if people get so lazy they can only sit in bed and watch church.”

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