Lifting a congregation: Grace Immanuel UCC modernizes its vintage church

There’s nothing quite like an old church. Be it brick or clapboard, nestled along a country road or shoulder-to-shoulder with its neighbors, such a building can remind us of our history, our ancestors, and our relationship to place.

But despite their history and charm, old churches pose challenges. Infrastructure may need upgrading, and vintage designs may not meet the needs of modern congregations. Modern ideas of accessibility, including ramps, lifts, and audio amplification, weren’t often understood when these churches were first built, nor were the many ways churches have evolved to be utilized. Today many churches are not only houses of worship, but also meeting spaces, childcare facilities, and education centers. Each purpose has its own needs: for privacy, seating arrangements, Audio/Visual requirements, and egress, to name a few. For an old church to address the modern congregation, it may need to undergo a serious makeover.

God is still speaking,

So it was with Grace Immanuel UCC in Louisville, Kentucky. A 130- year old church in a Victorian-era urban neighborhood, Grace Immanuel UCC is committed to welcoming all. According to Pastor Greg Bain, “We are an open and affirming church, and open every worship service with the words, ‘No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. God is still speaking.’” Welcoming diversity is a noble aspiration, but it requires work to ensure that welcome goes beyond lip-service. Like many older buildings, the century-old church lacked a way to get from one floor to the next without using stairs. The halls were narrow, and the sanctuary had rigid pews that were difficult to reconfigure, and difficult for some people to sit in for long periods. Many of the meeting spaces lacked privacy, an essential element to make many gatherings feel safe.

To follow through on their commitment to welcoming all, and to make the most out of their limited space, the church needed a makeover. “We had absolutely no way to do anything in terms of outward expansion, yet we needed to update the building and – most importantly – make the downstairs fellowship and classroom area accessible to the handicapped,” says Pastor Bain. With financing from the Cornerstone Fund, Grace Immanuel UCC “renovated the sanctuary… removing hard oak pews and purchasing interlocking upholstered chairs, installing six video screens along the walls, rewiring the room for various musical/speaking arrangements. The upstairs Christian Education area was completely gutted and refashioned to allow for a hallway, entrance hall, and three modern classrooms. An old and very steep stairway to our downstairs fellowship hall and classrooms was eliminated, and a lift was installed in its place. Another stairway was dug near the front of the building. These changes made our fellowship area accessible for the first time in the history of the church.”

We are here to stay

To fund such a dramatic renovation, Grace Immanuel UCC took out a $200,000 loan with the Cornerstone Fund. “The Cornerstone loan provided the best rate, plus the opportunity to use a church affiliated organization,” says Bain. “We have found Cornerstone to be easy to work with, and we are excited about paying off that loan soon!” Committing to accessibility has virtues beyond the immediate congregation. A healthy, accessible church can improve the local community, attracting new businesses and residents. “There is significant business investment entering our neighborhood these days…. It has not escaped notice that we are a part of this revitalization, as we host neighborhood meetings and other groups,” says Bain. By being willing to undertake huge projects to ensure congregants can access the church’s services, Grace Immanuel UCC has demonstrated a commitment to every person who enters. As Bain says, “The message is: We are here to stay.”