One of Tacoma’s oldest houses of worship is slated to become the site of a new Mars Hill congregation.
The fast-growing, Seattle-based megachurch announced this week that it’s buying the historic First Congregational Church at Division Avenue and South J Street, close to Wright Park.
Mars Hill plans to begin holding services there in fall 2013, after renovations.
The church needs roof work, among other fixes. Mars Hill officials say they expect to spend about $1.5 million on improvements.
“We’ve been praying about Tacoma for a very long time,” said Pastor Bubba Jennings, who will lead Mars Hill Tacoma. “We love Tacoma. We see Tacoma as an important city. We want to be part of what God is doing there.”
The church already has a presence in the city. A few hundred people are meeting in small groups, Jennings said, and starting this weekend they’ll begin attending the new Saturday night service at Mars Hill Federal Way.
Sale of the Tacoma building hasn’t closed, so a sale price isn’t finalized. The asking price was $1.9 million.
The sale will rescue the First Congregational building from an uncertain future. In the 1930s and ’40s, church membership soared to roughly 700 people. But it waned over the proceeding decades, at one point dipping to eight people.
The church is growing again, now welcoming between 25 and 40 people on Sundays.
Still, the small congregation struggled to pay for operating and maintaining the large church building. About two dozen members voted in May to put it on the market.
Members said they hoped it wouldn’t be torn down, but that was a possibility. The nearby First United Methodist Church was sold in 2006 and razed the next year for a hospital expansion.
The sanctuary of that building was 90 years old.
First Congregational, which organized in 1874, includes a Gothic-style sanctuary made of brick and sandstone, and a three-story education building. They total 36,996 square feet.
The education building dates to 1928 and the sanctuary is even older; the first worship service was held in that structure in 1908.
Gerald Eysaman, an architect who has studied Tacoma’s historic churches, said he’s relieved First Congregational won’t share First Methodist’s fate.
First Congregational is a “monumental piece of architecture,” he said. “It’s nice to have big pieces like that, well-built, that talk about our history.”
Phillip Blackledge, chairman of the church’s board of trustees, said he likes to think of the sanctuary – which has 500 seats – once again packed with worshipers.
“It’s kind of fun to hear them dream about what they’re going to do with each room,” he said of leaders from Mars Hill. “They’re going to return it to its former glory.”
The Seattle-based church started in 1996 in the home of founding Pastor Mark Driscoll. It now has 14 sites in four states and draws an average of 13,000 people per weekend across the locations, the church said. Of those, about 6,000 are members.
The church – one of the fastest-growing in the country – is known for its laid-back style, with energetic worship music and a strong social media presence. Podcasts of Driscoll’s sermons are frequently downloaded, and Preaching magazine has called him one of the most influential pastors of the past 25 years.
He also can be controversial. Last year, for example, he made waves after seeking stories on Facebook about effeminate male worship leaders, The Seattle Times reported. He later wrote that the remark was flippant and that church elders “sat me down” to discuss it, the paper reported.
Jennings said the timing seems right to start a Mars Hill location in Tacoma, and that the church will seek to contribute to the community.
He’s glad the First Congregational site will continue being a place where people go to seek God, he said.
Blackledge is, too.
He became part of the Tacoma congregation – which he described as progressive – when he was a boy in the 1960s.
It became “too much church” for his small group of faithful, and they’ll look to buy a smaller church to better fit their needs.
But the larger, historic building “is sacred space, and it’s kind of nice to know that it’s going to remain sacred space,” Blackledge said. “There will be a sigh of relief that the building is going to be preserved.”