It’s no secret that if you want to catch fish, you gotta go to the water. If you want to connect with people, to build genuine relationships that lead to vibrant community and natural evangelistic opportunities, you need to go where the people are.
For New Vintage Church, a congregation tucked neatly into suburban Escondido, California, proximity to the people means Grand Avenue on a Friday night.
In the summer, Grand Avenue comes alive with Southern California’s most popular vintage car cruise. Families pour in to the city’s historic downtown district to ogle classic cars, hear live music, eat great food and make new friends. This exciting atmosphere, along with other art and cultural events, plus new foodie-focused eateries, is helping to slowly revive a once-depressed city center.
And New Vintage wants to be part of the action.
“This corner of Grand Avenue,” says New Vintage pastor Tim Spivey, “both its location at the heart of our city marketplace and its cultural significance as [the home of] a historic theater, is an ideal location for our church to make a positive impact, right in the cultural heart of our city, to restore and bring new life into a place that has long been dead.”
On the far east end of downtown Escondido, before Grand Avenue blends into the suburbs, sits what was once the shining star of the city: The Ritz Theater. When this historic building came up for sale, Spivey and the other leaders at New Vintage immediately recognized its potential as a place where they could connect with the community.
The theater’s location positions it as an anchor to the walkable areas of downtown, providing a major attraction to draw visitors up the street while introducing them to all the other businesses along the way. But renovating a historic building comes with some pretty hefty challenges.
“I think the biggest challenge will just be getting to and through construction,” says Spivey. “With all of the regulations and permitting required in Southern California, it is a long and arduous process, with many obstacles along the way. However, we are prayerful God will give us favor with city officials and those who have the power to hinder or expedite the progress of this project.”
Built in 1938 as an art deco movie house, the building has great restoration potential. However, a fire in the 1950s and several careless remodels along the way will prevent a floor-to-ceiling restoration of the original look. Our architects and designers will instead restore the spirit of the building’s past while making it functional for today’s use.
Additionally, the historical society requires that the building be used as an entertainment venue as its primary use. The church cannot use it as primarily a worship space, which is fine with New Vintage. In fact that’s precisely why they want to restore the theater and rename it “The Grand.”
“This project will be perceived as a huge win for our city,” Spivey says, “and so far there has been unanimous excitement in both the church and community about it. The location of this project is a dilapidated section of our main street, and renovation will both support the surrounding businesses and attract new business to this section of Grand Avenue, while at the same time pushing out illegal and destructive activities that these abandoned buildings facilitate.”
New Vintage plans to primarily use the space for weekend services. Throughout the rest of the week, The Grand belongs to the community.
Partnering With the Community
The Grand will open in 2019 as a performing arts venue and studio, a much-needed permanent attraction downtown. It will host live theater events, films, concerts and art exhibits throughout the year. Schools and dance and theater groups will use the studio space to hone their art and prepare for performances.
“This project is a calling of radical generosity and hospitality,” Spivey says. “We are investing ourselves and our resources directly into blessing our community by restoring a critical community property that has been in decay for years, and then not keeping it to ourselves, but literally giving it back to the community to use and enjoy along with us. We hope that, in opening our doors to provide space for these valued activities, it builds a relationship of genuine trust and goodwill between the church and those who don’t already know Christ.”
Making Old Things New
But what makes this renovation of a historic building so exciting for me is the story of redemption it represents. You can’t help but see a metaphor of God’s creation, redemption and restoration in the story of this building.
When The Ritz opened 80 years ago, it was intended to bring life and artistic beauty to a young community. It barely survived the fire and multiple economic crashes. During the 1970s, when the downtown district lost its sheen, one owner turned the building into an X-rated movie house.
For 40 years, the theater has closed and reopened many times, with very little promise or hope. Today, however, the story is changing. New Vintage Church brings a vision for this classic building that has more potential than even the original builders could have imagined. When it reopens as The Grand, this theater will become a center for art, music and worship that will impact lives and bring glory to God.
“The Grand Project will be a God-sent opportunity for the church and community to get to know each other in a way I hope leads to lasting friendship and favor for Christ,” says Spivey. “We believe it starts with us, and we can’t wait to get started.”
Mel McGowan is cofounder and chief creative principal of PlainJoe Studios. He is a leading master planner and designer of churches in America.
Article originally published in Outreach Magazine, August 2018