After a five-year search for a permanent home, the Olympia chapter of Mars Hill Church has found a base of operations downtown near East Bay Drive, no longer needing to quickly set up and tear down its church services in a temporary location.
That was the Olympia chapter’s existence until last Sunday, when leaders welcomed hundreds to their new, 30,000-square-foot home at 819 Olympia Ave. NE, previously occupied by the Capital Christian Center. Capital Christian continues to operate a day care in the building, Mars Hill executive pastor Dave Harris said.
That Sunday marked the official launch of the new location, although the church had taken over the office building late last year to paint, renovate and build a new stage.
The church is acquiring the building under lease-to-own terms, Harris said.
This month Mars Hill also transformed one of Tacoma’s oldest church buildings into a new site for the megachurch.
Volunteers there transformed the 105-year-old, former First Congregational Church’s Gothic-style, sandstone-and-brick sanctuary at the corner of Division Avenue and South J Street.
In Olympia, the Jan. 12 launch featured three services as well as an opportunity to have a family photo taken or be baptized.
After the congregation was cued by music that the sermon was about to begin, lead pastor Seth Winterhalter took the stage to welcome everyone to the 10:30 a.m. service and then he stepped aside while the Rev. Mark Driscoll’s sermon was shown on a video screen.
Driscoll’s sermon was broadcast from another location to a congregation of about 500 people.
Harris said the congregation comprises young married couples, the military — including officers — and draws people from Lewis, Grays Harbor and Pierce counties.
Bibles were distributed to those who needed them and several people in the audience took notes.
Driscoll’s sermon, “Jesus’ bold little brother,” had a contemporary touch: a Twitter hashtag — #boldjames — flashed on the screen so that people could follow online, and at the end of it, tithing could be donated by text.
Driscoll closed by updating the audience on donations, saying the church not only made budget but was $2 million above budget, and that the church was in its strongest financial shape in 18 years.
Some, too, chose to get baptized on stage, assisted by staff wearing black T-shirts that said “death, burial, resurrection.”
While they were getting baptized, a six-member band swung into action, lifting the congregation to its feet as they belted out power ballads and up-tempo Christian pop-rock songs.
Executive pastor Harris, who rose from executive deacon to his current role, said he was “saved” by the church after a period in which the only direction in his life was the next party.
Both he and Winterhalter were excited to be part of downtown, the heart of Olympia, they said.
“We can feel the vibe of the people and present Jesus to them,” Harris said.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Mars Hill is one of the fastest-growing churches in America, with 15 sites in four states.
Founded in Seattle in 1996, the church is known for hard-edged sermons by Driscoll and for conservative views on issues such as homosexuality that have drawn both followers and detractors.
But there’s one value that has won Mars Hill respect from outsiders: architectural preservation.
While many of its congregations were launched in rented space at schools, Mars Hill increasingly is reusing historic churches:
- The downtown Seattle congregation moved into the former First United Methodist Church building about a year ago. Mars Hill is leasing and renovating the landmark building, which is more than 100 years old and was the spiritual home for some of Seattle’s founding families.
- In 2011, Mars Hill purchased a vacant, century-old church building in Portland. The castle-like structure had been a Congregational church for most of its past.
- In 2010, Mars Hill bought University Baptist Church, a building with a long history in Seattle’s University District.
Mars Hill Church gets its name from a place in Athens, Greece, where the Apostle Paul is recorded speaking in the Book of Acts.
A total of about 12,300 people at all Mars Hill locations turn out each week to worship and hear sermons preached by Driscoll, who founded the church in his Seattle home in 1996.
The church is known for hard-driving worship music, a strong social media presence and Driscoll’s direct preaching style. Podcasts of his sermons are popular downloads.
Mars Hill reuses other historic buildings besides churches.
The Everett congregation celebrated its move Jan. 12 into the refurbished former Washington National Guard Armory in Everett’s historic district. Two National Guard units had been based at the Armory for 90 years until fall 2011 when they were moved and the building was put up for sale.
Even Mars Hill’s Bellevue location has a storied past. Before it was renovated into a big-box electronics store, the building was the spacious John Danz Theatre — where baby boomers grew up with movies.
Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647; Rolf Boone: 360-754-5403