SOUTH PORTLAND — They say a church is anywhere believers gather together to worship, whether it’s around a campfire, in a coffee shop, or, in the case of Eastpoint Christian Church, in a big-box shopping center.
In a move that would make it the largest church in southern Maine and likely the state’s only megachurch, Portland-based Eastpoint Christian Church plans within a year to move its growing congregation to the former Bob’s Discount Furniture and HomeGoods stores, at 333 Clark’s Pond Parkway.
Founded in 2004 by Scott Taube, the congregation’s lead pastor, the church serves members from New Gloucester to Kennebunk. For the past year or so, as the size of the congregation has swelled, staff have been exploring a larger home.
Eastpoint is now at 58 City Line Drive, near the Portland International Jetport. The church is about 16,000 square feet and has an auditorium that seats 365 people. With about 1,200 congregants attending each week, space has been a persistent concern, Taube said Monday. On Sunday mornings, it is not uncommon for people to be turned away from a service and asked to attend another, simply for lack of seating, he said.
At the Easter Sunday service, total attendance for all services capped at an unprecedented 2,200. This Sunday, April 3, Eastpoint will add a fourth service on Sunday mornings to help spread out attendance.
The church’s growth is paradoxical to the statewide decline in residents who identify as Christian and participate in routine religious practices, such as praying and going to church. Maine’s population of religiously “unaffiliated” rose from 16 percent in 2007, to 23 percent in 2015, according to 2016 data from the Pew Research Center.
Maine is one of the least religious states in the country, ranked 48th according to Pew. Only 22 percent of the state’s population say they attend a religious service weekly. Pew study reported that 34 percent of adults in the state say religion is “very important in their lives,” and 35 percent reported they pray daily – the second-lowest rate in the country.
But Taube and Kurt Holmgren, the outreach pastor, are undaunted by these statistics; they have witnessed a growing demand, and believe that having a larger presence in the community will allow them to fulfill God’s plan for their church and for greater Portland.
Holmgren, who has been with Eastpoint since it was founded 12 years ago, said at first the endeavor to build a larger facility seemed excessive.
“I’m OK with a church having a sawdust floor and stumps,” he said Wednesday. “But when we turn this around and say, ‘No, let’s do this for the community,’ I was able to embrace that in a different way, because of its purpose,” he said.
The plan, Holmgren said Monday, was to “not build a church that’s just used for Sunday,” but rather build something “as a gift for the community.”
The expansion and appeal to the larger community, rather than just the church body, through a less religious approach is the way of the future for many churches, particularly the larger ones.
It’s a “total paradigm shift,” Taube said.
Holmgren and Taube were inspired by 242 Community Church in Brighton, Michigan, which, in addition to weekend services, offers an array of activities and space exclusively designed for community use, including athletic fields, a fitness facility, public banquet and meeting rooms, a cafe and sandwich shop – even a school for the arts.
The way of churches like Eastpoint and 242 seems counter to the traditional idea of church, where people sing from hymnals over organ music and wear pressed suits to services. What has replaced tradition are community-oriented churches that boast modern industrial architecture, full rock bands that bring a live concert worship experience, and pastors who preach in blue jeans and T-shirts.
To outsiders it may seem like a ploy to get more people through the door, but to those on the inside, it represents a sincere effort to adapt and meet people where they are, Holmgren said.
“I don’t think of it as a strategy at all,” he said. “I think God wants us to approach him as we are.”
It’s not that traditional expectations are wrong, he said, “We’re sort of just doing what’s more comfortable for us.”
Holmgren and Taube initially thought the only way to incorporate many of the new features they hope to have in their new space – a turf soccer field, a 1,500-seat auditorium, a cafe, commercial kitchen, gym and more classrooms and meeting spaces – would be to build from the ground up.
So, when the possibility to purchase 92,000 square feet of former retail and warehouse space between Home Depot and the Cinemagic Grand cinemas became an option, it was an answer to their prayers.
“It’s such big space for half the money,” Taube said.
According to the city’s tax records, the assessed value of the property is nearly $5.4 million. Eastpoint has since agreed to buy the building and surrounding six acres for $7 million from the owner, CPSP LLC, operated by Portland landlord Joseph Soley. The additional cost for renovations has not yet been determined, Holmgren confirmed Wednesday.
As a nonprofit religious institution, Eastpoint would not be required to pay taxes once the building is purchased.
Once the church has moved, two services will likely be offered on Sundays, Holmgren said.
Until then, “because of the unique nature” of the project, staff are interested in exploring the possibility forming corporate partnerships for the new business venture, as well culling public ideas about the community center. Those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Our whole Christian walk (should) be based on what Jesus received as the two greatest commandments: to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself,” Holmgren said.
As long as they keep striving to uphold these teachings, “we feel like God will honor” this decision, he said. “All we’re trying to do is be faithful with what he gives us.”
Scott Taube, left, and Kurt Holmgren, pastors at Eastpoint Christian Church, stand in what was formerly Bob’s Discount Furniture in South Portland. Their congregation is moving from cramped quarters in Portland to the 92,000-square-foot former furniture store and what used to be the HomeGoods store next door.
Eastpoint Christian Church is buying the former Bob’s Discount Furniture store, above, the former HomeGoods store next door, and the surrounding six acres at Clark’s Pond in South Portland for $7 million.