By: Jennifer Walker-Journey
Sean Seay had been on staff with North Point Church in Atlanta, Georgia, when he felt called to start a new church in the small university town of Athens, Georgia. It was 2004, and Seay and his family moved to Athens with three other families, a loan from North Point, and the assurance that the larger church would help strategically guide the new endeavor.
"We were a start-from-scratch church," recalled Seay, who is lead pastor of Athens Church. "We had no money, no people. "
The group leased office space, but, for worship, they decided that it was more cost-effective to rent space by the hour from a local public high school. Here, they incorporated a unique worship practice that involved playing video messages of Andy Stanley for their primary source of communication to their congregation.
In just a few short years, Athens Church had gathered enough of a following that it moved its worship services to a local convention center.
"It was a beautiful facility," Seay said.
However, membership longed for a place to call its own. By 2009, Athens Church had grown from three families to more than 1,500 members, and the time seemed right to take a leap of faith and find a permanent home.
But, as Athens Church was just beginning to get its finances in order, the economy was headed for one of the worst downturns in decades. Businesses across the country were filing for bankruptcy, even in small towns like Athens.
One business that went under in Athens was Steve & Barry's, a clothing store that a couple years earlier had moved into a large retail space left vacant by a Walmart store.
While no community wants to see businesses close, there was a silver lining in the cloud for Athens Church. The owners of the building were willing to come down significantly on the price in order to sell it to the church.
Building a church was unchartered territory for the new church, but they had valuable resources available.
"One of the things that helped us was the partnership we had with North Point," Seay said. "We were blessed to have them as a resource. They had started their first church in Buckhead, and they had actually renovated an old grocery store. So, they had first-hand experience."
The leadership of Athens Church also sought out a team of experts to renovate the 110,000-square-foot space, including Cogun Builders and LS3P architects.
The team gathered ideas by touring all of the Atlanta campuses of North Point, as well as New Spring Community Church in Gree and Elevation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The team then master planned the entire space, allowing for two phases. The first phase would renovate just 45,188 square feet and include ministry space for age-specific ministries, office space, and a 1,245-seat auditorium. The second phase would expand into the remaining square footage.
"Our model is pretty simple," Seay said. "We have a preschool environment we call Waumba Land, elementary has UpStreet, we have middle and high school space, and a small group environment called Starting Point."
"The architects also allowed a generous amount of space in the hallways to promote connection after services," added Richard Chancy, Cogun's project consultant.
The high ceilings welcomed an auditorium-style sanctuary, which fell in step with the church's unique worship style.
"We knew our presentation on Sunday would be a lot of lights and video-oriented, and we decided to build the auditorium around that approach" said Seay.
Cost was an important factor, but there was also a desire for the church not to look like an old Walmart store.
"Lon Harvey, our project manager on the job from Cogun, worked hard with the architect to provide a cost-sensitive solution that matched the culture of the church," Chancy said.
Assorted masonry and light elements helped to soften the exterior.
Inside, the church took on a very "down home" feel, thanks to the inspiring work of local interior designer Kristin Norris.
"She really uniquely understands the heartbeat of our church and our city," Seay said. "Our church is called Athens Church and the theme of this project is 'Athens, I love you.' We created a place where people in our city would feel comfortable."
Norris achieved this by incorporating local landmarks into the building's design, such as including a local coffee shop, the fire department, and Broad River, which runs through the city, in a mural.
Construction began November 2010 and ran relatively smoothly for the next six months.
"With any construction project you are constantly dealing with challenges," said Chancy. "There were no major ones, however. Because our process is a design-build process, we work hard to create the healthy tension that has to exist between the architect, contractor, and church. Focusing on regular communication with the church allowed us to face the many innate challenges of this project head-on."
On June 5, 2011, Athens Church held its first service in its new building. Nearly 2,100 people attended the services, which was a good crowd considering the population varies depending on whether the University of Georgia is in session.
"I feel like the response from the community as a whole has been very positive," Seay said. "Business owners in this complex say they are grateful for our presence here."
That goodwill has spread even to the church's builders.
"I actually played a charity golf tournament with a guy recently who told me he'd been waiting for Athens Church to get a permanent facility to begin taking his family to the church," Chancy said. "That makes it all worth it."
Cogun takes pride in assisting churches with the challenges and opportunities of expansion. Cogun manages the entire process, from pre-design to post-construction services. With their development expertise and industry partner relationships, they help build the right ministry space for churches, www.cogun.com.