By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
Senior Pastor Mark Allen’s path to starting a church in Athens, Texas, began in 2005 — though it certainly wasn’t his plan.
“Athens doesn’t need another church,” he laughs. “It’s an exaggeration, but I’ve heard people say there are about 12,000 people who live here and, like, 1,500 churches.”
But, God had something else in mind.
In 2005, Senior Pastor Mark Allen’s father — also a pastor, in Florida — was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Though Mark was pastoring a small church in Oklahoma City, he promised his dad he’d help with the Florida church’s transition. Mark resigned his position and traveled to Florida from Oklahoma every week for a year.
After his father’s passing, Mark kept his promise, staying with the church for six months. Even so, he says he didn’t feel it was where God wanted him and his family to be long-term. By early 2006, he was regularly asking for God’s guidance.
His answer was a recurring dream about starting a church in Athens, Texas. In one way, it made sense: Mark’s mother had moved there, as had two of his siblings and their families. His brother frequently encouraged him to do the same: move there and start a church.
But Mark was hesitant.
“I’d wake up and think, That’s crazy. “ And he had two good reasons for thinking so.
“First, who would start a church in the Bible belt, where there are already so many churches?” he asks. “Second, who wants to pastor his brother? I love my family — they’re wonderful — but I wanted to keep the relationship.”
“Then the Lord told me: If you do it, it will be the best decision you’ve ever made,” Mark recalls.
Following in blind faith
With his marching orders in hand, Pastor Mark started Life Fellowship in Athens in 2006.
The church met in a temporary space for the first 5.5 years. By 2012, it had acquired an astounding 100 acres of land.
“I had no intention of building right away,” Pastor Mark explains. “We were just focused on growing the church. My approach was ‘buy early; build late.’”
After 4.5 years, the church was welcoming 225 across three services each weekend in its small, rented space. Plans were made to build Life Fellowship’s first building, seating 340. A draftsman from the community was enlisted. A year later, the church moved into its building.
In just five months, attendance doubled, growing to 450. The church added a third service. Within a few years, it was hosting four services: two on Saturday and two on Sunday.
By 2015, the need to build again became clear.
Pastor Mark’s first concern was financial; he didn’t want to put the church in a position where it could never retire its debt. Therefore, his goal was to pay 50 percent cash upfront for the $11.5-million project.
His second big concern was the daunting process of actually designing and constructing the facility.
“This building was on a much larger scale than anything we’d done previously,” he says. “I knew that Life Fellowship needed to engage a highly specialized church architect who not only shared our vision, but who could actually guide us and shape it into reality.”
A shared vision
Pastor Mark was familiar with Life.Church and its numerous campus locations. Through his research, he discovered that the partners of Specialized Planning & Architecture for Church Environments [Space] — Mark Allen and Thomas Small — were directly responsible for the design and construction of most Life.Church campuses since 2005.
With 25 years of designing and building projects throughout the country, Mark Allen joined the Life.Church team in Edmond, Okla., in 2005 to oversee the campus expansion vision. Due to the volume of work, it was determined early on that an architectural partner was needed. After interviewing several architects, Thomas Small, also of Edmond, was chosen to partner in the Life.Church multi-campus expansion plans.
After four years at Life.Church, Allen was routinely being asked by visiting churches if he could help with their architecture and project management needs. In response, he and Small created their firm, Space, in 2009 to serve churches nationwide.
Though Pastor Mark and his team vetted several different church architects, he says it was the Space team’s combination of architecture, construction and ministry experience that made them the ideal fit for Life Fellowship’s expansive project.
“They already had an understanding of what we needed,” he says. “There’s something about how things flow and move that’s important to a church but different than how a business might function.”
Even more important, Pastor Mark says he felt an extreme sense of purpose, dedication and synergy with Space.
“As a pastor, you need to be able to verbalize your vision and what needs to be accomplished — and not just have it inside your head,” he says. “That means you need a great team around you.”
Having spent quite a while translating visions like Pastor Mark’s into reality, the Space team (Allen and Small) understood what he needed from them.
“Church leaders normally have a preconceived ‘vision’ of what they want in their new project, but not all understand how that translates to a conceptual plan which addresses their unique programming requirements,” Small says. “Even before design begins, we’re very diligent to work through a comprehensive architectural program to ensure the project will meet the church’s needs. Only after that program is created and validated by the church will we begin the architectural design process of developing the conceptual plan and building renderings.”
“I walked through this building probably 10,000 times before we ever broke dirt.”
— Mark Allen
For several months, Space collaborated continuously with Pastor Mark to interpret his vision and translate that into an architectural program and conceptual design. Budget is identified in the programming stage, ensuring checkpoints are put in place throughout the process to adhere to budget.
“It was a constant process of, ‘Let’s make sure we get this right’ and ‘We might want to switch to this,’” Pastor Mark recalls.
To help him understand the overall design was consistent with his vision, Space provided multiple views and versions of the design through 3D renderings and computer-generated models, allowing the project team to traverse the space and refine it. As a result, Pastor Mark felt confident the end product would fulfill his vision of creating a place for people to belong.
“I tried to put myself in the position of every person who would visit the church,” Pastor Mark affirms. “I ‘walked through’ this building probably 10,000 times before we ever broke ground.”
According to Space, this high level of communication and coordination with the church is standard practice for their firm. “It’s only through this method that we’re able to achieve a highly customized solution that matches the specific requirements for each church,” they explain.
Bringing design priorities to life
The first design priority was making sure, from the outside in, that the facility reflected the church’s vision statements: Encounter God. Find friends. Discover freedom. Make a difference.
“For example, I never wanted a parking lot behind the church, because people are scared to come to something new — they don’t know what to expect,” Pastor Mark points out. “I wanted everyone to see what we’re doing, even from the parking lot. Nothing is hidden; there are no hidden agendas.”
The Space team knew exactly how to create that transparent, welcoming environment. Every light post on campus bears a “Welcome home” sign. A 20-by-10-foot, double-sided LED sign near the road displays messages of encouragement day and night. “We use it to tell people, ‘We love you, and if you need anything, come see us,’” Pastor Mark says.
Stepping inside, the focus on fellowship space is evident. As architect Small points out, “The limited lobby in the church’s first building didn’t allow people to visit with each other between services. For the new facility, Space designed a lobby and commons area that spans more than 9,600 square feet — larger than the first building altogether.”
QUICK FACTS ABOUT LIFE FELLOWSHIP
Year established: 2006
Number of staff: 12
Combined weekly attendance: 1,300
2019 budget: $3.4 million
Pastor Mark shared with Space a vision for a church lobby that looked like an airport concourse. True to form, glass is everywhere, from the café, to the bookstore, to the “dream team” area for volunteer check-in; everything in this space is designed with an open concept. An abundance of seating is available for people to grab a coffee, read a book, or talk with friends.
“It’s all about people seeing that they can help us make a difference. Everyone is welcome to get on our team,” Pastor Mark says. “You hear about children’s ministries that are so good that kids are upset when they have to leave. I want that, but for adults — to love coming to church and not want to go home.”
To foster fellowship throughout the facility, Space designed the café space to flow to an outdoor café with a custom-built fire pit. It’s just one of the many porches and patios that occupy 65,000 square feet of outdoor fellowship space, providing the ideal site for birthday parties and events or even just a break for church staff during the workday.
As Pastor Mark points out, this design strategy supports the church’s focus on relationship, community, and providing a space that belongs to the church family.
“I correct people all the time when they refer to it as ‘your church,’” he says. “I say, ‘This is your church. You own this. It all belongs to you’.”
Life Fellowship moved into its new, $11.5-million facility in December 2018. By the time it opened its doors, it was nearly 50-percent paid off. The plan is to pay the rest within four years.
“We have people walk in — people who’ve never heard our music or our preaching — and tears stream down their face, though they can’t explain why,” he shares. “There’s something different here than I’ve ever experienced before. They come into a building, an experience, an environment of people, and it all says: Welcome! We’re glad to have you. You’re a part of our family.