At Apex SouthPark: Amid the hustle, bustle and business, a beacon
by Ken Garfield
One of the grandest experiments in American church life is unfolding across the street from the main entrance to SouthPark mall. Demolishing your building, changing your name, and putting down roots in a new edifice in an upscale development beside a hotel, apartments, steakhouse and assorted other shops and businesses? Now that’s bold. In the years to come, I hope followers, skeptics and everyone in between will flock to SouthPark Church in search of a deeper life. But whatever the future holds, here’s what I believe …
God bless this little church with big dreams.
Having been immersed in church life for 25 years, I’ve seen all manner of struggling congregations erect gyms and buy video screens, praying that if they build it, the people will come. Not so much. The percentage of Americans who say they attended a religious service in the last seven days has declined from a high of 49% in the 1950s to the mid-30s in recent years. The future isn’t looking rosy. One survey found that between high school and turning 30, 43% of once-active millennials quit going to church regularly.
The good and gutsy folks at Sharon United Methodist learned the hard way that it was going to take more than a new basketball court to become a vital part of more lives. People knew the church by its location across from the mall and by its distinctive steeple and roof: the ski-slope church, folks called it. Every now and then, a young and foolish soul would climb up in the dark of night and try to “ski down.” But familiarity didn’t breed popularity. Over the last two decades, Sunday morning attendance has been on a slow decline, from 500 in the glory days to 250 or so recently. This mainstream Methodist church wasn’t connecting. Something had to be done, and so it was.
The congregation agreed to sell its property to Charlotte-based Childress Klein developers for $15 million. Down came the ski slope, and up went Apex SouthPark. The development features 345 upscale apartments (named Element SouthPark), a 175-room hotel (Hyatt Centric is due to open this spring), 1,050 parking spaces and 80,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. Now open: Steak 48, a Chicago-based steakhouse where the menu lists an 18-ounce bone-in filet mignon for $73.
Where does the church fit in? The newly named SouthPark Church kept an acre in the middle of all this. On it, the church has built a four-story building that includes traditional and contemporary worship space, patios, and ample room for children and youth programs and fellowship. The second phase will feature a 700-seat performing-arts center for church and community events, classrooms, a music suite, and offices.
The church’s price tag for the entire project is $30 million. Besides the land sale and a loan, the church will generate revenue by leasing retail and office space in its building (an orthodontist is already signed up) and selling advertising space on an 18-foot digital sign. Audi is on board. Sunday advertising, however, belongs to the church.
Among the thousand and one details: When the old church came down, the cremains of 30 dear and departed souls were shipped to a neighboring church for safekeeping. They will return to their eternal resting place in the new building’s indoor columbarium.
Church leaders, by the way, do not lack for whimsy: The steeple of the new church resembles a ski slope. “A little nostalgia,” Rev. Kyle Thompson says with a wry smile.
Does the meaning of this go beyond brick and mortar?
Think of Apex SouthPark as an urban village, like the small towns of old (only sleeker), where the church was at the center of it all. There will be worship, of course. But there are also plans to create a gallery for local artists’ work and spaces for Room in the Inn for homeless people, AA meetings, SouthPark merchants’ meetings, concerts and perhaps a weekly community lunch. When the old church closed, Thompson told The Charlotte Observer he wants to be the place where the sacred and the secular intersect. That’s at the heart of why the church did this: to be a beacon to all who live, work, shop and pass through the SouthPark community, not just on Sundays but every day.
Thompson, who has lived, breathed and preached about this venture since arriving in 2012, hearkens back to the Bible story about the woman at the well. Shunned by her community, seeking to quench her thirst, she encounters Jesus. He shares this promise: “Those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again.”
Think of SouthPark Church as that well. Each week at Apex SouthPark, 12,000 people will walk past the church. Some will be searching for the steakhouse or the orthodontist’s office. But many will be searching for peace and quiet amid the frenzy of daily life. For something to ease their pain. For a friend to talk to. For a God who loves and understands. SP
Freelance writer/editor Ken Garfield is a frequent contributor to SouthPark magazine. He also writes obituaries, edits books and helps charitable causes tell their stories. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
photograph by Stephen Knaack