What does it take to move a church?

As it turns out, it’s kind of like when a family moves houses, except, well, bigger.

“When somebody moves, like a single person or a family, that’s obviously a big thing, but we never thought what it would take to move a church,” Ben Hitzfeld said. “It amplifies all of those small things. Take a regular move and multiply it by 1,000.”

Hitzfeld is pastor at Manhattan’s First Christian Church, which is in the middle of its move from a downtown home of over a century to its new, 15,000-square-foot location on Grand Mere Drive. Although the church started services at the location in mid-May, there’s still plenty to figure out in its new home, Hitzfeld said.

“There’s 1,000 different things we have to learn, like who’s mowing the grass, who’s controlling the irrigation system with the lawn,” Hitzfeld said. “When the snow comes, who’s going to be shoveling the snow? Probably me, but it’s just things like that.”

The church’s new home, nestled near the top of the neighborhood’s imposing hills, is a gleaming white building in a sea of beige, Hitzfeld said. The $5 million building overlooks much of the west end of Manhattan.

“It’s a million-dollar view, because you’re looking at million-dollar homes,” Ben said with a laugh.

Tall exterior windows and rooftop skylights wash the church’s sanctuary and fellowship hall in sunlight. Natural materials, like the painted concrete floor and white walls, give the church a simplistic, but modern, look.

“We just wanted a space that was congruent,” Hitzfeld said. “It all just matches together. We have something that is clean, uniform and appealing to the eye. It lets you know immediately that this is a church.”

Practically the entire church — except for a basement storage space and tornado shelter — is on the same level. Hitzfeld said the church was very intentional in ensuring all of its members could easily access every part of the building, since the old location was a maze of stairs between several additions to the church.

“We do have some handicapped people in the congregation, and to see them come from their cars into the building without any issue is amazing,” Hitzfeld said.

The church also included a new daycare ministry in the building, called From Cradles to Crayons. Those initials match the church’s, Hitzfeld said.

“One of the things we wanted to do was have a built-in ministry to the community through a childcare,” Hitzfeld said. “We have a whole wing that has a nursery and four classrooms. That will hopefully open in late August. That’s one of the ways we’d like to reach out to parents, in making this a center for education and young kids.”

Hitzfeld said the church hopes to become a community space for both the neighborhood and the greater Manhattan area. In the past, the church hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and Hitzfeld envisions the church serving as a place to support people going through depression.

Amid the new church’s new walls, pews and sound and lighting systems, the church will maintain some measure of solidarity with its history. The church’s old pulpit, lectern and communion table were brought over, and its long-held painting of the Jordan River in Israel, created in the 1940s, overlooks the church’s new baptismal font.

A new history

The move has been long-time coming. In 2004, a group met to plot out First Christian Church’s strategic future. They determined that the church’s old location at 5th and Humboldt streets in downtown was too landlocked, and there was no room for the church to grow.

And that wasn’t for a lack of trying. The church had seen several different changes in its building’s character in its 152-year history. Founded in 1867, the church met at members’ homes until the church’s first small, 1,100-square-foot church building was finished in 1874.

Then, when the church outgrew that first building, members moved the original building offsite but kept the property to build a new stone church that was four times bigger in 1909. Since then, the church saw two major remodeling projects, and that 1909 building is the structure you see if you visit the courthouse plaza.

But having grown so much in the past, there wasn’t much space left for the church to develop.

“We were limited in the space to grow any further,” Hitzfeld said. “I think they also saw how even though it was a historic building with a lot of character, all the stairs made it a challenge for our new visitors. I think they were more confused than anything coming in, and it wasn’t clear where to go. It was such a big building, that I think it was more intimidating coming in.”

Hitzfeld said the courthouse plaza location almost even hid the church, since direct street access from Poyntz Avenue was closed off. A lot of people didn’t even realize the building was a church.

Marian Fuller, an office administrator with the church for over 30 years, said the move has been extraordinary.

“I thought it would be very sad to leave downtown, because I have loved it there, and it was convenient and I got to know a lot of people there,” Fuller said. “I thought I would miss it, but I actually love it out here. Everything is gorgeous. I hope people come check it out.”

At its last Sunday downtown, the church held a special service where church members carried out four small stained-glass windows that illustrate the church building’s history. Then at the first service in the new location, church members carried the windows in, marking a new chapter in the church’s history.

Hitzfeld said the church hopes to hang the stained glass on one of the fellowship hall’s windows, where they’ll shine as a bright reminder of the church’s tradition.

Normally, the church averages 60 to 80 people every Sunday morning, but 160 people attended the first service at the new building. Hitzfeld expects that number to slow down throughout the summer, although the hope is the church will be able to reach new families and grow its congregation. The church will host a dedication service Aug. 18 that will serve as the church’s official invite to the community.

Hitzfeld said the church is looking to sell its old location, and a few other churches have expressed interest in buying the property. Proceeds from that sale, as well as the sale of 28 acres the church owns north of Manhattan, will help pay for the $5 million building. The church still has a ways to go after the congregation raised $1 million through a capital campaign, Hitzfeld said, but he said he’s been amazed by the congregation’s generosity.

By moving to the new location, the church is embracing change, Hitzfeld said.

“A move to a new church building gives us the chance to reinvent ourselves — question who we are as a faith family and make decisions,” Hitzfeld said. “If we can change buildings, then there’s nothing else we can’t change about who we are as a church.

“Oftentimes, tradition stands in the way of change in the church,” Hitzfeld continued. “To take the biggest and most valuable tradition that we had, and to see what we could do, now the sky is the limit for us as a church.”

In any case, the church will maintain its identity as an open, welcoming organization, Hitzfeld said.

“We are very open to all people coming and participating,” Hitzfeld said. “No matter who they are or what they’ve done. We don’t ask people to come up to a certain level or repeat a certain dogma or doctrine to be a part of the church family. That’s a part of who we are. We’re a very open and loving, come-as-you-are kind of church. That’s an identity that’s going to stick with us from old building to new building.”

City reporter for the Manhattan Mercury