A church is born again inside an old Costco
I love the metaphor of what this project means for all of us,” says James Brummett, looking out into a sea of faces. “Some of you may feel like an old, abandoned warehouse. You may feel your best days are behind you. But Jesus is in the business of redeeming those who are broken and discarded. In fact, it’s His specialty.”
It’s 11:40 on Super Bowl Sunday morning and there is nary an empty seat in Journey Christian Church’s cavernous new auditorium, the centerpiece of an extensively renovated 110,000 square-foot building that used to be a Costco retail store. In a space that once might have contained big-screen televisions, family-size condiments or 80-pound bags of dog food, Brummett stands on stage in a black T-shirt and blue jeans, delivering a message that is 100 percent love and forgiveness, zero fire and brimstone.
If you couldn’t hear Brummett quoting from scripture, you’d never guess he was the senior pastor of one of the largest churches in Chesterfield. That’s not by accident. Brummett, who has led Journey for the past 11 years, came to the county from a church that required all male staff to wear a coat and tie for Sunday services. His blunt assessment of the policy: he hated it.
“I don’t want people to feel like they have to dress up to go to church,” he says. “If I dress up on Sunday, people will take their lead from that. When I show up wearing jeans and a golf shirt – or sometimes a football jersey – everybody says it must be OK.”
Grand opening hoopla notwithstanding, standing-room-only attendance at Journey’s two Feb. 5 services suggests Brummett and his staff are doing something right.
The percentage of Americans who say they attend worship on a weekly basis continues to decline, according to the Pew Research Center. In a 2014 survey of more than 35,000 Americans, Pew found the percentage of adults (ages 18 and older) who describe themselves as Christian dropped from 78.4 percent to 70.6 percent over the past seven years.
Journey, meanwhile, has somewhere north of 1,200 members … and counting.
“Everybody is welcome here. We don’t judge,” says Jennifer Langford, a Journey member since 1998 who heads up the church’s volunteer hospitality team.
During the week before the new building’s grand opening, Langford was contacted via Facebook by a young woman who expressed interest in attending a service, but was reluctant because she has multiple tattoos and piercings.
Langford encouraged her to come anyhow. The woman walked out of the auditorium after the 9:15 service with a huge smile on her face. She told Langford she’d definitely be back the following Sunday.
“When someone comes in who either hasn’t had a church experience or had a negative experience, we offer something for them to connect with,” says Julie Botset, Journey’s director of operations. “If we don’t create an incredible first-time experience for visitors, they might not come back. If they don’t come back, we can’t guide them to a growing relationship with Jesus.”
Brummett describes the church’s “internal culture” in a way that sounds like a contradiction: Everyone is welcome and worthy of being treated with dignity. At the same time, Journey’s high-energy services are not for everyone.
“We’re focused on who we’re trying to reach rather than who we’re trying to keep,” he adds.
Journey was founded in 1995 as Countryside Christian Church. For the first 10 years, its members met on Sundays in multiple Midlothian-area school facilities. They eventually acquired a nine-acre parcel on Old Hundred Road, began construction of a new church in 2003 and occupied the building in 2005.
About two years later, Countryside rebranded itself as Journey Christian Church. Brummett, then its new pastor, set out to lead the church on a different path, one whose primary objective was creating environments where people with little or no church background could discover and develop their faith.
Not everyone was thrilled with the change. About half of Journey’s 400 members left the church within Brummett’s first 18 months.
“I didn’t want people leaving because they misunderstood what we were trying to do,” he says. “When somebody said, ‘I understand what you’re doing; I just don’t like it,’ I was all right with that.”
Journey added new members faster than it lost old ones, and was once named one of the 100 fastest growing churches by Outreach magazine.
By 2010, Brummett concluded the Old Hundred Road campus lacked sufficient space for the church to fulfill its potential.
Much to the chagrin of members who had donated money to fund the building just five years earlier, the pastor announced it was time to move again – this time just a few hundred yards away, to the new Clover Hill High School.
Once again, about half of the church’s members left. They simply had no interest in being part of a “mobile” church and meeting every Sunday in a high school auditorium.
“It was the next right thing to do,” Brummett says. “We didn’t want the size of the campus to limit our long-term growth. We believe in our mission. But I didn’t put myself in the shoes of the people who had sacrificed so much to get us into that campus in the first place.”
Journey’s search for another, larger permanent campus ended at a location that can accommodate all the future growth the church can muster: a massive warehouse, near the intersection of Hull Street and Courthouse roads, which had been vacant since Costco opened a new store near Chesterfield Towne Center six years ago.
Journey purchased the property for $2.75 million in 2014 and spent nearly $5 million more to transform an empty shell of a building into a house of worship.
The design process took about a year. Construction started last April and workers were still scurrying around inside the building less than 48 hours before the inaugural service.
“God creates beauty from ashes,” Botset says, noting it would have cost at least three times as much to build a similar-sized structure from the ground up. “We didn’t know how this all was going to come together. I’m just grateful I got to be part of it.”
The church has renovated only about 54,000 of the building’s 110,000 square feet. That includes dedicated areas for children’s and youth services, a “Connections” space where hospitality volunteers greet visitors and three rooms where people new to the church experience can ask questions in a “Starting Point” group.
The auditorium, which has a stage large enough to accommodate a full-sized drum kit and a large worship band, currently seats 835 but can be expanded to nearly double that capacity.
What the building doesn’t have is stained glass or any of the other trappings of a traditional church. During the week before the grand opening, Brummett fielded an inquiry from a member who was curious whether the church planned to put carpet down on the auditorium’s scarred, scuffed concrete floor.
The pastor mentioned that exchange toward the end of his Feb. 5 message.
“People ask me, ‘What are you going to do with that floor? It’s kind of gnarly. It has blemishes and imperfections all over the place,’” Brummett says. “That’s kind of like all of us. We’re not perfect. Nobody has a perfect life. It’s OK not to be OK.”
Watching hundreds of people stream out of the auditorium following the service, George Valentine couldn’t help but smile.
Valentine, who has been a member of Catholic and Baptist churches, attended a service at Journey six years ago and never left.
“Look at this place,” he says. “It’s vibrant. It’s alive.” ¦