Mars Hill megachurch expands to Tacoma after renovating First Congregational building

Staff writerJanuary 18, 2014 

For seven months, an army of volunteers from Mars Hill Church sanded floors, knocked out walls and painted down to the nooks and crannies in one of Tacoma’s oldest churches.

They were preparing to open one of the newest locations for Mars Hill, a multisite megachurch known for sometimes controversial stands.

The volunteers transformed the 105-year-old, former First Congregational Church sanctuary, giving it fresh life as a center for Mars Hill’s high-energy worship style with rock bands belting out sacred hymns such as “How Great Thou Art.”

The building could have fallen to the wrecking ball, like Tacoma’s First United Methodist Church building did two blocks away. That 90-year-old sanctuary was demolished in 2007.

Instead, the Gothic-style, sandstone-and-brick sanctuary at the corner of Division Avenue and South J Street has entered a new chapter this winter.

“We want to honor the history of the building and make sure the building will be a blessing to the city for hopefully another 100 years,” said the Rev. Bubba Jennings, lead pastor of Mars Hill Tacoma. “We want to continue the legacy of Jesus.”

Mars Hill is one of the fastest-growing churches in America, with 15 sites in five states.

Founded in Seattle in 1996, the church is known for hard-edged sermons by the Rev. Mark Driscoll and for conservative views on issues such as homosexuality that have drawn both followers and detractors.

But there’s one value that has won Mars Hill respect from outsiders: architectural preservation.

While many of its congregations were launched in rented space at schools, Mars Hill increasingly is reusing historic churches:

  • The downtown Seattle congregation moved into the former First United Methodist Church building about a year ago. Mars Hill is leasing and renovating the landmark building, which is more than 100 years old and was the spiritual home for some of Seattle’s founding families.
  • In 2011, Mars Hill purchased a vacant, century-old church building in Portland. The castle-like structure had been a Congregational church for most of its past.
  • In 2010, Mars Hill bought University Baptist Church, a building with a long history in Seattle’s University District.

Now, in Tacoma, Mars Hill has completed a $1 million renovation of the historic Congregational church, director of property and development Caleb Walters said. Mars Hill Tacoma raised $745,000 in donations, exceeding its goal of $700,000.

Walters said buying and using historic church buildings continues a tradition of spreading the Christian message at those sites. First Congregational fit that model.

“It was extremely likely that was going to be a parking lot if we didn’t buy it,” he said.

While services for Mars Hill Tacoma started last month, the grand opening Jan. 12 was the first publicized chance for people to see the renovation.

Tacoma architect Gerald Eysaman hasn’t seen it himself, but he said the building’s preservation as a church — instead of being torn down or converted to another use — is “a terrific win for Tacoma.”

“I think it’s a great sign of respect to our community,” Eysaman, who has studied local churches, said. “Who else would do that?”


Mars Hill purchased the church in late 2012 for First Congregational’s asking price of $1.9 million.

Today, it’s a very different looking worship space.

The pulpit and lectern are gone. The front of the sanctuary has been converted to a flat stage for bands and productions.

There are new video and sound systems and restrooms. The electrical system is new, too, and the roof has been patched. The sanctuary’s ceiling, once peeling away from water damage, glistens with white paint.

Jennings said volunteers worked a total of 8,000 hours to renovate the 400-seat sanctuary and three-story education building, which cover a combined 36,996 square feet.

“We want to honor the past,” said Jennings, 37. “We want to live for today.”

A total of about 600 people from the congregation’s evening study and fellowship groups — called “community groups” — volunteered for weeknight and Saturday work parties over the past seven months. Volunteers worked 1,500 hours repairing and painting the massive interior ceiling. A contractor was hired to build new bathrooms.

Jacob Veliz liked the transformation he saw at his first service in the renovated church last month.

“It was fantastic,” said Veliz, 24, who lives in Auburn. “The inside of the building has that modern-historic look to it.”

The congregation was based previously in Federal Way, meeting in the cafeteria at Saghalie Middle School.

Walters said Mars Hill wanted to expand to Tacoma, and was drawn to the First Congregational building because it offered the right location, size and price. “And the fact that it’s a beautiful building,” he said.

He also said purchasing an old church is usually less costly — even after renovations — than buying a newer building that can be used immediately.

Mars Hill isn’t in the business of architectural preservation, but Walters said saving a historic church building such as First Congregational is a “wonderful benefit.”

“We love it when a building has a story to tell,” Walters said. Organizations come and go, he said, but “the story of Jesus and the work of the Gospel hasn’t changed and won’t change.”


January is a busy month for Mars Hill.

The Tacoma congregation and another in Phoenix celebrated their public grand openings last weekend. A total of 1,786 people attended the five services at Mars Hill Tacoma, with 25 baptisms performed in a portable pool.

The Olympia and Everett congregations also marked their moves to new locations last weekend. And the congregation for Orange County, Calif., is meeting at a new site in Huntington Beach.

In Tacoma, Phillip Blackledge, trustees chairman for First Congregational Church, said he was pleased with the renovations he saw on YouTube videos.

“It really warms my heart to see that church renovated,” said Blackledge, who grew up in the church near Wright Park.

His enthusiasm expanded after he attended a Mars Hill service Jan. 5.

“I’m impressed with the beauty of the sanctuary,” Blackledge said. “I love the textured walls and the soft lighting with blues and pinks. It was a warm and inviting experience.”

Prior to his visit, Blackledge said he was saddened to see the old carved wood pulpit and lectern removed, though he understands why a stage is needed for the modern worship style.

Jennings said Mars Hill plans to use the disassembled pulpit and lectern in part of the stage area.

Mars Hill also took apart a wall that included stained-glass windows and wood doors to create more space in the foyer. He said the windows and doors will be used for a “feature wall” in the foyer.

“We have tried to recycle and reuse as much of the old wood as possible,” Jennings said.

Blackledge, whose congregation is now meeting in a Lutheran church building it bought in South Tacoma, said Mars Hill’s ability to renovate the church was a selling point.

“That was one of the carrots in selling to them,” he said. “I knew that building would be restored.”


Mars Hill Church gets its name from a place in Athens, Greece, where the Apostle Paul is recorded speaking in the Book of Acts.

A total of about 12,300 people at all Mars Hill locations turn out each week to worship and hear sermons preached by Driscoll, who founded the church in his Seattle home in 1996.

The church is known for hard-driving worship music, a strong social media presence and Driscoll’s direct preaching style. Podcasts of his sermons are popular downloads.

Tacoma worshipers watch on high-definition video the sermon Driscoll preached in-person a week earlier at the Bellevue church. All other Mars Hill congregations watch the same sermon.

There are no current plans for Driscoll to preach in person in Tacoma.

At Tacoma’s first service, he preached for over an hour via video, relating the Old Testament’s Book of Malachi to Jesus.

The first time, Driscoll said, Jesus “came as a savior.”

“He comes as a judge the second time.”

Driscoll warned non-Christians their eternal destiny is at stake.

“Some of you are going to hell,” Driscoll said. “We’re all going to sit over a flame.”

After the service, Dina Schroeder said she likes Driscoll’s “straightforward approach” so much she’s considering switching from her Puyallup-area church.

“I like that he keeps it Bible-based,” said Schroeder, 40, of Tacoma. “And he’s not afraid of offending people,” said Schroeder, who attended with her husband and their children, ages 2 and 1. “You get the truth here and it’s not watered down.”

That undiluted theology also has drawn many critics, with Driscoll a spiritual lightning rod.

Mars Hill does not allow women to serve as pastors or elders because it says that’s what the Bible teaches. Like many conservative Christian churches, Mars Hill also says homosexuality is sinful, according to the Bible.

Last summer, The Hub restaurant in Tacoma was pressured to cancel a “Replace the Roof” fundraiser for Mars Hill Tacoma over those issues. An anonymous website called Tacoma Demands Better criticized the restaurant’s owners for sponsoring the event for “anti-LGBT, anti-women Mars Hill Church.”

But church members are unflinching in their support for Mars Hill and for its new site in Tacoma.

Paul Mulyarchuk, 22, of Kent said he’s glad to have a permanent church home and to have had a hand in its renovation.

“It’s gorgeous,” he said. “I like that it’s a really old church and we got to restore it.”


Mars Hill reuses other historic buildings besides churches.

The Everett congregation celebrated its move Jan. 12 into the refurbished former Washington National Guard Armory in Everett’s historic district. Two National Guard units had been based at the Armory for 90 years until fall 2011 when they were moved and the building was put up for sale.

Even Mars Hill’s Bellevue location has a storied past. Before it was renovated into a big-box electronics store, the building was the spacious John Danz Theatre — where baby boomers grew up with movies.

The Tacoma renovation is Jennings’ third with Mars Hill. He and two other Mars Hill staff members led the project.

Jennings also helped renovate the megachurch’s original Ballard church — a former hardware store — and the West Seattle church.

“This is the most difficult,” Jennings said at a mid-December work party in Tacoma. “It’s the most challenging in regard to trying to preserve the original building.”

He said the goal has been to “maintain the vintage church aesthetic.”

About 80 volunteers worked that night, most of them painting.

Janet Lowen, who lives in Tacoma’s North End, was among them. She said she’s glad the church building has been saved and restored.

“This building has a unique location,” Lowen, 40, said. “It’s very central. … It’s part of Tacoma’s history.”

But she also said a church is more than a place.

“I think ultimately a church isn’t a building,” Lowen said. “It’s the people.”

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647

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