Putting Down Roots in the City
By: Katherine Ball, LEED AP | Published in Faith & Form Vol. XLVII
In Music City, home of the Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, people come to dream big dreams. Nashville, for the fortunate, boasts stately homes, southern charms, opportunity, and abundance. For others, however, life in Nashville has a harder edge, a classic honky-tonk tale of hard luck, lost love, excesses, and falls from grace. The needs of the city are as big as its dreams. Close to 20% of Nashville’s citizens live below the poverty line, and on any given night 3000-4000 people in the city are homeless. Eight soup kitchens serve the downtown core alone.
Often, those who have and those who have not lead very separate lives as very separate populations, and the under-resourced are largely forgotten. Churches have long served such people in need, but during the era of disinvestment in city centers, many churches moved from dilapidated downtowns into more verdant and prosperous suburbs. Distance created additional challenges in serving the needs of the urban poor.
Cross Point Church wanted to eliminate that distance. A young congregation founded in 2002 by Pastor Pete Wilson, the church describes itself as a place where “Everyone’s welcome because nobody’s perfect, but we believe that anything’s possible.” The multi-site church leans towards the contemporary, with an accessible attitude. Think plaid shirts instead of suits and ties; guitars instead of organs; a coffee lounge instead of a formal church parlor. The atmosphere may be easygoing, but the church’s focus on ministry is not. Pastor Wilson says it most powerfully in a visioning video for the new Nashville Campus: “We are relentlessly dedicated to reaching the lost.” It made sense, then, that when it came time to build a new church home, it would be in the heart of the city, close to the greatest areas of need.
The church had been growing rapidly since its founding in 2002, when the congregation was meeting at a local elementary school. By 2006 the congregation had grown to 500 adults and offered 4 services to accommodate the crowds, but space was still tight. Pastor Wilson’s video talks of a driving principle guiding church facilities: it is not enough to have a seat for each church member attending a Sunday service. The critical thing is to be sure there are always open seats for those who are not part of the community yet. With this in mind, the congregation raised over a million dollars to move into its second home, sharing a church building with another congregation. New campuses also developed in Bellevue, Dickson, Franklin, and West Nashville, and the solution was adequate for a time, but by 2012, Cross Point was one of the top 20 fastest growing churches in America. The church needed space for those open seats. It needed space quickly.
The search for this next space was difficult. The building needed to support its existing congregation, leave room for growth, and provide opportunities to minister to a cross-section of people, and do these things within a budget that would leave room for the church to focus on its ministries rather than its facilities. The ideal site would be close to downtown, near both new development and government housing projects; close to the needs of young families as well as the needs of the under-resourced; easily accessible to all.
The ideal site, as it turned out, required a bit of imagination to uncover its potential. Located at the corner of Jefferson and Cowan just off of Interstate 24, the size of the 1973-vintage warehouse was sufficient, bordering on cavernous, with 100,000 square feet of partially occupied space. Its precast and masonry walls were monolithic and imposing at 28’ high. The neighborhood was gritty and industrial, tending towards hardscrabble, with a nearby brick plant, drifts of shipping containers, and a few low-rent motels. Its proximity to LP Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, was a mixed blessing, as it offered game-day excitement as well as parking conflicts. The warehouse was also located near the Cumberland River, and more importantly, to the heart of Nashville, close to the greatest needs of the city.
It was perfect.
Once the site was secured, the team could focus on translating Cross Point’s vision into a 3-dimensional reality. The timeframe for the project was tight, with less than a year between the project kickoff in May 2012 and opening celebration in March 2013. The church engaged architecture firm LS3P, a Southeastern regional firm with a worship design team based in its Greenville, SC office. The LS3P design team began the process with an intensive design workshop called the “Canvas Sessions.” The purpose of these intensive sessions is to understand deeply a congregation’s culture, mission, vision, and goals, and create initial concepts to begin design for a space which will transform its ministries. This is no small task.
Cross Point, however, was focused and energetic, and the visioning process flowed naturally from its values. Jenni Catron, former Executive Director of Cross Point, was instrumental in organizing the sessions and helping the stakeholders to convey their vision. The church wanted a space which was welcoming, accessible, and real. The staff asked for built-in community spaces with a home-like feel; lobby and check-in spaces which were more “relational” than “transactional,” and “industrial chic” finishes which were authentic and warm. Design inspirations came from the local taqueria as well as other worship centers, and a key priority was to maintain a view of the Nashville skyline from the entry lobby, keeping the heart of the city present within the church.
Lead architect Dave Benham of LS3P felt that the new design was an accurate reflection of Cross Point’s character. “Cross Point was determined to keep ministry at the forefront of their vision,” he recalls. “They wanted the space to be welcoming, but they wanted to keep finishes and amenities minimal. Their attitude towards stewardship of resources ensured that we maximized their investment of time, money, and volunteer labor from the congregation. The results are impressive.”
Progress was swift, though it involved the age-old construction issue known as “unforeseen circumstances.” The warehouse, it turns out, had stood in 4’ of water during the historic Tennessee floods in 2010, when the Cumberland River jumped its banks. The site had recently been re-categorized as a flood zone. The problem was manageable, thanks to a system of waterproofing panels which were installed to slide quickly into place to seal doors and windows in the event of rising waters; however, the change required additional waterproofing, drilling through the concrete slab at 10’ intervals to combat potential hydrostatic pressure, and a fair amount of re-working of the budget as well as the design.
On the whole, though, the project proceeded swiftly, and the doors of the new Cross Point Nashville Campus opened March 24, 2013, on Palm Sunday. The 40-year old warehouse near the brick factory had been transformed into a warm, modern, inviting community space, and was renovated for a figure close to $50 a square foot. This number was made possible by strict attention to scope, priorities, and details, and by countless hours of volunteer labor from members of the congregation.
The new design for the space broke down the monolithic 28’ façade, creating a human-scale rhythm of metal panels, tranquil blue accents, and a “streetscape” texture. The interior, occupying almost 55,000 square feet of the building, achieved its intended industrial chic aesthetic through exposed ceiling elements, a polished concrete floor, and reclaimed wood elements installed by a volunteer woodworker in the congregation. The feel is open and airy, with a double-height space in the entry lobby flooded with natural light. Expansive new windows frame a view of the Nashville skyline.
The lobby space is designed to welcome members and visitors with screens for digital wayfinding, a “connecting point” welcome station, and a cozy backlit coffee counter. A niche for small-group conversation is carved into the lobby wall, providing a space for first-time families to talk with church members and staff. An ethereal yet industrial sculptural lighting element hangs above a small corner stage, which is used when the lobby doubles as event space. This corner is lovingly known as Tootsie’s, as a nod to the famed Nashville honky tonk where many of the city’s best loved performers have gathered and played.
Down the hall in the children’s education wing, the vibrant orange color marks a zone designed for flexibility and growth. The space is durable and uncluttered, with simple details such as mod plastic dome lights providing a playful vibe. Digital displays facilitate Sunday morning drop-off; parents use bar-coded key fobs to register children, which print color-coded name tags leading families to classrooms. Middle school student ministry spaces offer a variety of space configurations, with comfort and flexibility as the main design priorities.
The worship center is simple, minimal, and spacious, with stadium-style seating for more than 1,600. The seating configuration and large digital displays create a sense of proximity to the speaker from every part of the auditorium. Broadcasting and back-of-house spaces support the A/V equipment required to broadcast the service to the other Cross Point campuses. The organic and raw aesthetic creates a sense of authenticity in the space.
The building transformation is complete, but the church continues to grow, evolve, and thrive. As Pastor Wilson points out, “The building isn’t the church, but the building is a tool, and we feel God has blessed us with this incredible opportunity to be able to reach out to others.” The church has the space to nurture its congregation, welcome newcomers, and pursue its mission to remain relentlessly dedicated to reaching the lost.