A church is not a building. A congregation may have a "church building," but that building is not "the church." We sometimes sing a song by Baptist songwriter Ken Medema that urges:
Come build a church with soul and spirit, come build a church of flesh and bone.
It's people who make up the church -- flesh and bone. It's people who comprise the congregation -- soul and spirit. Medema continues:
We need no tower rising skyward, no house of wood or glass or stone.
He's right about that, too. We don't have to have the building to be the church. But, in the case of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, we have a building of wood and glass and stone, with a graceful tower reaching skyward. What are we to do with it?
If we were starting our congregation today, I doubt that we would even consider building such a structure on the corner of Bryant Street and North California Avenue. For one thing, we could not begin to afford the property given today's values. However, 70 years ago our forebears did buy this property and built this building on it. The times were different. The church was different. The neighborhood was different. In 1947, when churches were experiencing the post-World War II boom, we had 600 to 700 members and functioned as both church and community center. Most religious institutions in those days functioned in that way, and they were built in neighborhoods to provide easy access for those whom they served. Activities involving music, art, education, service, counseling, leadership training and community building were common. Business contacts were made and business conducted in and around the church.
Since that time, more opportunities for community involvement have arisen than most of us can imagine. The role of the church has shifted in that it is no longer considered "the community center." Still, churches and other religious institutions continue to be important community centers. In this way we continue, as the prophet Jeremiah exhorted his people several millennia ago, to "seek the welfare of the city. ... For," he proclaimed, "in its welfare you will find your welfare" (Jeremiah 29:7).
However, we are not starting our congregation today. In fact, First Baptist Church has been actively involved in the life of the city of Palo Alto for 125 years, 70 of those operating from the current church building at 305 North California. The building we have at this address is a legacy, a gift from our forebears. What are we to do with it?
It was not so difficult to figure out what to do with our handsome, spacious building today. The uses are obvious, the need is significant, and the opportunities are myriad. When I became pastor 12 years ago, it was my observation that the building was severely under-utilized. I said to the Church Council early on that this was not good stewardship of what we have been given nor was it fulfilling the mission of our congregation to let the building sit empty. After its people, our building is our most important asset.
I will confess that part of the motivation for expanding the use of the building was economic. As with many religious institutions in the western world, we are property rich and cash limited. We need to be creative in order to balance our budget. Generating income from the building seemed a logical way to do that. Some of our congregation argued that we were moving away from being church by also becoming landlords and a rental agency. I had to wrestle with that. I knew it wasn't true, but I wasn't sure why.
What I have discovered over the years, by sharing this space with our partners (we no longer refer to them as tenants or renters), is that every activity and organization that goes on in our church building is consonant with our mission statement. Yes, the first function -- to worship God -- fits easily within the city's definition of a religious institution; the others -- to educate, to serve, to cultivate community -- can be interpreted much more broadly and we do. From the church's perspective, the activities and organizations that share our space and help sustain it are all oriented toward seeking "the welfare of the city." This may not fit precisely what people had in mind when they built this building in 1947, but I believe that many of those wise and creative pioneers would applaud what we are doing with their legacy today. For them, like us, being the church was not about the building but about what one did with gifts one had been given. In gratitude for this building, we seek always to be good and responsible stewards, working to bring about "God's Beloved Community" here in the city of Palo Alto.
That said, it is important to note that we value our neighborhood and our neighbors. We very much want to be a good neighbor. We are aware of the concerns of some of our neighbors about noise, parking and traffic. We share those concerns and are working hard to address them. Consideration of appropriate partners to share our space regularly has included the size and nature of the group along with the noise, parking needs and traffic that will be generated. Given what we have heard from our concerned neighbors, we are quite willing to give additional consideration to those concerns in scheduling further use of the building as well as making changes to the building.
Among the changes are the installation of air-conditioning and double-paned windows in our Fellowship Hall that will significantly mitigate noise; creation of a system for letting neighbors know in advance what is happening in the building; assurance that there is a workable method for neighbors to raise their concerns as they happen; and work with all our partners to create scheduling that will lessen concerns about traffic and parking. Now that the New Mozart School of Music has left the building, iSing Silicon Valley Girlchoir has adjusted its schedule, and the city has created a drop-off zone in front the church, the problems with congestion have been largely alleviated.
We are open to receiving other suggestions for addressing concerns so that we can continue to live in our location as good neighbors for years to come.