Fanning out north of Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city, are rapidly growing suburban areas drawing in young families. The town of Cornelius is one of those places. Positioned on the eastern edge of Lake Norman—itself jutting out, finger-like, in multiple directions—Cornelius boasts a young population: nearly 40 percent between the ages of 25 and 44; 22 percent under the age of 18.
This town is home to Community in Christ Lutheran Church, a 37-year-old congregation with a growing membership of young families. By 2007, it was clear that the 140-seat sanctuary was no longer adequate for an expanding membership—a lovely problem to have. So planning began that year to build a 10,000 square-foot facility housing a 400-seat sanctuary.
Then came the recession. “The economy tanked on us,” Senior Pastor Travis Norton recalls. “But we were not deterred; we had launched a capital campaign, and we kept raising money. Our first effort raised some $400,000. Then we launched a second campaign and raised another $600,000.”
These multi-year fundraising efforts, however, weren’t sufficient. Then Mission Investment Fund Regional Manager Jerry Johnson recommended that MIF Church Building Consultant Jeff Spann share his expertise. Reign in the project, Spann advised: Turn the 10,000-square-foot project into a more manageable—and affordable—7,000-square-foot building; scale back from a 400-seat proposal to seating capacity for 300.
“Still, the financial commitment required a leap of faith,” says Justin Cunningham, church council president. “We had to focus on whether we could sustain loan payments. It was a difficult decision.” Church council members went on retreat to consider the proposal and pray about it.
Community in Christ made the decision to move ahead and adopted the down-sized building plan that Spann recommended. The new plan also called for a narthex, nursery and cry room.
And while a couple local lenders weren’t so eager to assist with this project in the early stages, the Mission Investment Fund became the congregation’s lender of choice.
“In addition to the Mission Investment Fund, another lender was interested in our business,” Pastor Norton says. “MIF was willing to negotiate and offered a very competitive interest rate. And the fact that MIF uses funds of its investors to help start new churches— that was great motivation for us. We wanted to support that vision.”
Says Cunningham: “The low-interest terms from MIF signaled to us that we could afford the payments and move forward with this project. We had a great feeling of momentum, a feeling that our congregation was growing.”
Focus on the stained glass cross
Community in Christ’s new building was dedicated on Palm Sunday 2014. Additional chairs came out that day to accommodate an overflow crowd of worshippers. Now, with the addition of a second Sunday worship service, all 350 weekly worshippers fit comfortably in the 300-seat sacred space.
The sanctuary is wider than the original, and all worshippers are closer to the altar. The chancel area is elevated, and a more sophisticated system projects sound and images.
But it is the sole stained glass window, lovingly created by artist and congregation member Elizabeth Moore, that captures visitors’ attention as they enter the sanctuary. The stained glass image is of a cross. “The portrayal is so simple, yet incredibly meaningful,” Cunningham says. “From the moment you walk into the church, it is crystal clear that the focus is on the cross.”
Now that the new, larger worship space is in use, Pastor Norton is delighted that the former sanctuary can now serve as the official home to Sunday school classes. “For the first time, Sunday school doesn’t have to share quarters with our preschool,” he says. Additional space may allow adding a preschool class in the coming year.
Beyond the sanctuary
Community in Christ is a congregation that reaches out in many ways in the service of Christ. The congregation offers tutoring, English language training and worship opportunities to Vietnamese refugees—Christians who had fled their own country following religious persecution. Once each month, Community in Christ members prepare a meal for the local homeless population. Members farm their own organic “giving garden” and tend a chicken co-op to donate eggs and produce to local soup kitchens. Community in Christ members are also sharing the gospel message with believers some distance away, across Lake Norman, and considering ways to minister to these folks on a regular basis.
Clearly, the congregation’s reach continues to grow.