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St. James United Methodist Church
By: Jennifer Walker-Journey

From the moment St. James United Methodist Church gathered its first followers 50 years ago in a living room in Montgomery, Alabama, there were many leaps of faith. The first was building a traditional brick sanctuary in what was then the edge of town. The church flourished there over the years, and the city began to spread east into vast farmland.

In time, more and more people began moving into the new subdivisions on the outskirts of town. It was here that church leadership saw great potential. After much thoughtful consideration, in 1996, the church took a large and faithful step into east Montgomery.

St. James purchased its first acreage and built a Family Life Center that could meet its immediate needs. The center served as both a sanctuary for worship services and a gathering area for fellowship. And, with basketball goal lines painted onto its hardwood floors, it became a place for church recreation, as well.

The community embraced the church's new location, and it didn't take long for the church to outgrow its Family Life Center. The church added modular buildings that provided adequate but cheap covered property for its many growing needs, such as children's programs.

The church held the philosophy that relocating was a vow to change, said longtime St. James Pastor Lester Spencer.

"A lot of churches like us are trying to reach the next generation with the traditional services they like. We were a very traditional church, but when we relocated, part of our vision was to change," he said. "When we moved out east, we started doing a blended service – a little traditional, a little contemporary. People tended to prefer one or the other, so eventually we decided to hold two separate services – a traditional service and a contemporary one."

While the new, contemporary service had more attendees, both the contemporary and the traditional services were growing in numbers. Church leadership began to dream of a worship center that would give homes to both styles of worship and to flow its growing membership comfortably in the space.

In early 2000, church leadership interviewed several architects, but they were especially impressed with TurnerBatson, an architect firm based in Birmingham Alabama. The firm had a strong regional presence in the Southeast with church, educational, medical, and corporate projects in Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee.

St. James identified as its primary needs a dynamic contemporary worship space with views to the outside overlooking a lake, a large gathering area with opportunities for coffee and fellowship, an area for traditional worship utilizing materials from their historic original church, and a large preschool addition.

For several years, TurnerBatson worked with church leadership to design a center that would service all the church's needs. As part of their research, principal architect Dave Reese, AIA, and project architect Andrew Butler, AIA, traveled to Chicago to visit Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago.

"Meshing vision with budget was our biggest challenge," said Reese.

What resulted was a design for what Pastor Spencer calls the ultimate worship center.

The St. James project consisted of a 1,000-seat contemporary worship center with full stage and back stage components. This included multimedia and worship performance flexibility, which resulted in unique catwalk designs, a raised technical booth, and large projection screens. The worship center also allowed for a large gathering space with a bookstore, a café, and a guest services area.

An education wing included a traditional-style chapel for 250 with seven stained glass windows, an organ, and radical pews. The wing also made room for a children's worship area and preschool classrooms.

Because all areas of the church were growing steadily, the church wanted space to add a youth department in the future. The architects advised that it would be cost-effective to shell out space in the upper level of the education wing during this first phase of building.

The building's exterior was specifically designed to complement the existing brick traditional architecture of the existing facility, but it allows for a more transitional styling for the unique worship space. "

"The primary focal point of the worship space is a tower, or lighthouse, that faces two major roads," Reese said.

A large lake was also installed, providing both visual appeal and an area for site water retention.

The interior was designed to allow for natural light to flood the space, with 14-foot-tall windows on each side of the stage. The windows look out onto the lake and have automatic shad screens which can be discretely lowered during the service to set different moods.

The floor was sloped with stained concrete floors and a carpet runner. Curved walls and soothing colors helped to reinforce a water theme throughout.

"It's a great design," Pastor Spencer said. "Compared to all the big famous churches, I think what we've got in terms of the quality and feel and look and functionality of it, I'd put our building up against anybody's. I wouldn't trade this church with any other in this conference. It's really a pastor's dream."

 "The process took eight years to become a reality, but it was well worth the process," Reese said. "We have a better building as a result of our journey."

TurnerBatson celebrates its 86th anniversary this year. The firm specializes in church, educational, medical, and corporate projects throughout the Southeast, www.TurnerBatson.com.

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