Leawood’s United Methodist Church of the Resurrection eyes a $90 million overhaul

Stepping outside the largest Protestant church in the Kansas City area, the Rev. Adam Hamilton marches a few dozen paces with the brisk gait of a man who knows exactly where he’s headed.

He stops inches from a parking stripe and turns. In his mind’s eye, the senior pastor then proceeds to walk into a future place, a sanctuary to be finished by Easter 2017 and, he hopes, to stand 100 years.

The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection has its sights on a $90 million overhaul — astonishing for a congregation just 24 years in existence and already boasting a hulk of a building that opened a decade ago.

New additions near 137th Street and Roe Avenue in Leawood, as laid out in the church’s capital campaign, are designed to be much prettier than what motorists see there today.

Never before has Resurrection featured stained glass. These plans call for one of the largest stained glass windows in the country, facing northwest and visible from U.S. 69, two miles away.

Hamilton, 49, envisions something even more meaningful as he steps along the grounds.

“Right here I’m walking into the narthex,” he says near the parking lot’s edge. “Skylights, coffee shop, book stations, tables and chairs all around. People coming together as a community.”

Intimacy, that is.

He and thousands of congregants who recently turned in their pledge cards imagine being surrounded by what feels more like a church and less like an airport terminal or basketball arena.

They foresee beams of natural light, interior trees, kids and parents in proximity under one roof and a 45-foot-tall image of a resurrected Jesus at the center of that stained glass wall.

Hamilton points to an orange utility flag planted in the dirt.

“That’s about where I’ll be standing. The choir will be where those hay bales are.”

He, the singers, orchestras and practically all 3,500 people to be seated in the future sanctuary will be able to see one another’s faces. Hamilton wants to see their eyes — he can’t in the sprawling, low-lit sanctuary now in use.

The challenge for this megachurch, still growing with 18,700 members: “To grow larger,” he says, “by growing smaller.”

And to build an edifice that stands a century atop a Kansas limestone foundation and beneath a stainless steel roof.

Some are doubtful about the century notion.

“You tell me,” says Dave Travis, chief executive of a national church growth consultant called Leadership Network, “how many things around Kansas City have been standing since 1914 and are still vital to the community?

“Where I live (Atlanta), they built a perfectly good dome for the 1996 Summer Olympics. And it’s getting blown up next year,” he adds. “That’s just what happens anymore.”

To be sure, in a throwaway age of changing habits, new technologies and, among many young adults, skepticism toward big religion, who knows if crowds will still show up for worship services in the early 22nd century?

But skeptics never have made Hamilton flinch from big, bold visions.

He helped start the Church of the Resurrection, or COR, in his mid 20s, preaching to 100 who met in a funeral parlor. It’s now the nation’s largest Methodist congregation. And this would be the fourth sanctuary on the Leawood campus since the mid 1990s.

10,000 reasons

“It’s not about buildings,” says Hamilton, “but buildings are important to a church’s mission.”

COR predicts the $90 million capital investment will foster a community of caring and improving lives: $5.6 billion worth of charitable giving and global outreach over 100 years, 50,000 baptisms in the same span, tons of food donated to area pantries and countless gallons of blood from drives.

Church volunteers already partner with six inner-city grade schools, providing enough school supplies and mentoring to benefit 10,000 low-income children over the next 20 years. COR also aims to deliver tutoring and resources to at least 10,000 United Methodist churches in decline around the nation.

Hence the capital campaign’s name: 10,000 Reasons.

With a goal of raising $55 million from the congregation, $5 million from donors outside the church and about $30 million to be financed, the campaign got an early boost from several prominent donors, each pledging $1 million. More recently, a donor agreed to match online contributions up to $2 million.

Julia Edmondson of Overland Park, who is 12, decided on her own to give $10 monthly over three years. That’s almost a third of her allowance, but “I don’t know where I’d be right now without my church,” Julia said. “It’s worth it.”

The city of Leawood approved site plans last year and ground is to be broken next year.

For $90 million — that’s $78 million for the new sanctuary, the rest for other improvements on campus — coming generations would be landing a bargain, as Hamilton sees it. The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts cost about $400 million, was designed to draw crowds similar to Resurrection’s and, he notes, “it’ll be around for 100 years too.”

The pastor expects Resurrection’s new sanctuary and its stained glass display to become a must-see for visitors to Kansas City, like the Kauffman Center.

As designed by the Minneapolis office of HGA Architects and Engineers, working with Kansas City-based Gould Evans, the exterior of the oval-shaped structure will feature seven stainless steel panels symbolizing the seven days of creation and Holy Week.

Yet the worship space is 35 percent smaller than the present sanctuary, a place originally designed to someday accommodate a gymnasium. Now seating 3,000, it will be converted into a two-story facility for contemporary worship, adult classrooms and large fellowship dinners cooked up in a kitchen (which COR, for all its prosperity, still lacks).

Never meant to be a permanent sanctuary, the existing mezzanine takes visitors up 35 steps, making it all but impossible to see, without the big screens, a baby being baptized.

In the new sanctuary, 90 percent of seats will be within 100 feet of the chancel.

A 2002 plan called for a sanctuary huge enough to fit 7,000 worshippers, surrounded by an ocean of asphalt for parking. But sensibilities changed, including those expressed in national surveys by the next generation of parents and church leaders.

“Big wasn’t a good thing for millennials,” Hamilton says.

He hopes the future campus will offer three options of worship venues, with a 600-seat chapel eventually joining the new sanctuary and contemporary worship space. The chapel is not included in the current campaign.

Skye Jethani, executive editor of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, said, “It’s hard to make broad generalizations about megachurches and what draws people to them. … But the appeal of large institutions isn’t as strong for people my age (37) or younger as it is for their parents.

“Megachurches thrive among baby boomers.”

Multi-site growth

Still, there’s no evidence of shrinkage among the 1,600 U.S. churches that draw more than 2,000 to weekly worship services, according to a 2011 study. The Hartford Institute for Religion Research found that on any weekend, 10 percent of Protestant worshippers go to megachurches.

And COR, which attracts about 7,000 to several weekend services in Leawood, intends to keep growing — just not on one campus.

Since 2006, it has opened satellite locations in Olathe, Blue Springs and downtown Kansas City. Together they draw another couple thousand worshipers weekly. “Multi-site” churches of all sizes are exploding in number across North America, experts say.

“You don’t see many of the megachurches putting up larger buildings,” said sociologist Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute. “You see them spinning off to other, smaller locations.”

As membership expands or contracts through the decades, large congregations can adjust by opening or closing satellite churches.

Perhaps the greatest worry for any church erecting a sanctuary for the century, Thumma said, is the volatility that can occur with a change in leadership.

“There are a number of empty megachurches around that were unable to replace a popular leader,” he said.

Hamilton has gained national attention for sermons and writings that bring a civil clarity to divisive issues such as abortion, race, stem cell research and alternative lifestyles. Recently the congregation witnessed the baptism of a same-sex couple’s baby.

If such social views don’t reflect the typical megachurch stance, “it’s what a lot of people in my generation are talking about,” said congregant Katherine Aldrige, 28. “Here you’re given both sides.”

She is one millennial committed to COR for the long haul.

Hamilton pledges the same, 20 years or so: “Unless God has another plan, I hope to retire from here. If the congregation will keep me.”