ETHAN VANSE / SENIOR PASTOR / CHURCH ON THE MOVE / BROKEN ARROW, OKLA.
For leaders at Church On The Move, switching it up — not only in their growth model, but also in their building approach — got them just where they wanted to be.
By RaeAnn Slaybaugh
For Ethan Vanse, Church On The Move has been home for more than three decades. He and his family began attending when he was 10.
In 2010, Vanse became one of three teaching pastors at COTM.
Then, in 2017, he stepped out and led a different church — in California — that was being adopted by a large church. Leaving home was difficult, but Vanse says he and his wife, Sarah, really believed in this model. “Being out there opened our eyes to a different way of doing churches in context in community,” he recalls.
In 2019, Vanse accepted the call from Whit and Heather George to rejoin the leadership team at COTM. It was something he hadn’t considered but embraced, primarily because it gave him the chance to implement the same growth model as in California, but on a larger scale.
Ethan and Sarah Vanse moved back to Oklahoma and began leading the team at the COTM campus in Broken Arrow, Okla. It’s the third location of Church On The Move.
When they arrived, the Broken Arrow church was a satellite location of COTM meeting in a performing arts center. Worship was live, as were all ministry activities; only the teaching was delivered by video from the founding / original location.
Now, Vanse says, COTM doesn’t have campuses, per se; each location has its own full staff and a senior teaching pastor. And this tailored, community-centric approach lends itself particularly well to Broken Arrow, a suburb of Tulsa where Vanse says people are “living their best lives” but yearning for more.
“They have the house, the car, the dog, and they’re wondering, ‘Is this it?’ They don’t have a lot of purpose connected to all that,” he explains. “As we started to do more research and understand what this community was like, we realized these were the exact people we feel like we’re called to reach.”
Additionally, many COTM families already resided in Broken Arrow. Plus, it’s a very fast-growing area.
“Putting all those things together, we felt like it was a pretty bright spotlight on this part of the city,” Vanse says.
Not their first rodeo
The COTM Broken Arrow approach proved so effective, in fact, that the church soon outgrew the performing arts venue where it was meeting. Though the worship area had plenty of seats to accommodate growth, the additional spaces were too small to accommodate the kind of kids and student ministries COTM wanted to offer.
It was time to establish a permanent home. That much was clear. But Vanse and his team had a big decision to make: how to move forward.
It might have seemed like a foregone conclusion, since COTM had been managing its own extensive building projects in-house for a few decades. While architects and engineers were independently enlisted, general contractors and specific skilled positions — carpenters, electricians, plumbers — were employed on staff. This allowed COTM to be very nimble as it pursued vast building projects driven by the explosive growth the church experienced in the early 2000s under founder Willie George’s leadership.
This approach also translated to cost savings, given the scope of the construction the church was undertaking. Projects at the time included the development of several hundred acres of land surrounding the original campus and construction of a camp — on another several hundred acres purchased by the church —about 45 minutes away. Designed like an old west “boom town,” the location was sometimes used as a summer camp for kids and other times as a studio for producing Christian films and TV, including The Gospel Bill Show.
Yet, by the time construction on COTM Broken Arrow was on the horizon, the church had transitioned away from an in-house building approach. As Vanse explains, speed and budgetary incentives were major factors to enlist a design-build firm — Churches by Daniels — instead this time.
A few of the firm’s staff attended COTM, so the introduction was natural.
QUICK FACTS ABOUT CHURCH ON THE MOVE (BROKEN ARROW)
Year established: 2018
Number of staff — full- and part-time: 11 / 4
Combined weekly attendance: 2,000
Challenges drive opportunities
The overriding goal was to get the church into a permanent home in a good location. But COTM wanted to be actively involved in the community, so being in the heart of the city was important. As such, retrofitting an existing building emerged as a better option than building new.
When COVID hit, however, the COTM leadership team decided to hold off on construction. They opted instead to go with the flow and purposely not rush into a building project, given all the financial unknowns the pandemic brought with it.
To their surprise, the right fit — a fitness club — emerged during COVID.
“We were just really loving people and doing ministry when this building came up for sale,” he says. “And it was right at the intersection where we wanted to be. We’d put a pin right in the middle of this intersection and said, ‘If we could be anywhere, this would be it.’”
Though the location was ideal, one potential hurdle was the building’s size; it was quite a bit smaller than Vanse and his team were hoping for. After much discussion, if this was to be COTM Broken Arrow’s new home, the only way to make it work would be to hold more services. Across the board among church leaders, the answer was yes: they would do whatever it took because this place “felt right.”
Aside from its size, zoning issues, construction constraints, and site requirements within an existing space made for some unique conditions.
The building was gutted; only the outer walls remained. Large locker rooms, saunas and aerobics and yoga rooms were reconfigured for church use. The floor was sawcut to run plumbing to new locations. The ceiling was reinforced, and columns were eliminated. The entire front of the building was converted to glass, and a tower was added. The exterior entrance was extended out. Sound insulation was added for the neighbors’ benefit. In short, the whole building needed to be reimagined.
And of course, COVID threw a wrench in the spokes financially.
“Everything was delayed. Everything had price increases. Inflation affected everything,” Vanse recalls. “Working with [Churches by Daniels] really allowed us to work with a group of experts that were also friends who could say, ‘Here’s what you can expect. Here’s what the additional cost is going to look like.’”
The process had a steady, stabilizing effect for Vanse, his team and the congregation. This established trust was vital when it became clear that additional funds would be needed to finish the project, due to price increases.
“Without it, the perception could be, maybe they’re adding stuff or maybe they’re not very good at managing money,” he adds. “We were really able to disarm that [line of thinking] because we had great friends and experts working with us.”
“A big family in a small house”
At the new COTM Broken Arrow building, everything from the parking to the auditorium was designed in a way to accommodate just about any use the church could imagine: formal receptions, parties, memorial services, Mom’s Day Out, and so much more.
“Everything can be flipped to feel as comfy as being in your living room, or it can feel like a banquet hall,” Vanse says. “That [multipurpose functionality] has been the goal from the beginning.”
In this sense, the church’s size actually adds to its “magic” rather than acts as a hindrance, as Vanse explains: “You feel like you’re in a church where everybody knows you, but you don’t have any idea how big it really is. It captures some of the charm and the family feel we had when the church was just getting started.”
Aside from the familiarity its size creates, the building’s layout is also straightforward. When parents walk in, they can immediately see where their kids need to go. Families know just where the auditorium is. Everyone can see the availability of nurseries. Restrooms are easy to find. As Vanse says, “There’s not a lot of mystery to it.”
In effect, he believes this disarms people who might not otherwise be comfortable checking out a church. As evidence, the general public is frequently on hand — not always for worship, but that’s OK with him.
“When we were launching this location, one of the things we felt really strongly about was having the building open seven days a week in a way that would invite people in, not even because we had the ulterior motive of getting them to church — although we hoped that happened,” Vanse shares. “We really just wanted to be known as place that loved our city and was there for our city and serving it all week long.”
To this end, COTM has partnered with Broken Arrow public schools and with some nonprofits, like Broken Arrow Neighbors, to resource poor and under-resourced families in the city.
There’s even a bakery and coffee shop onsite: Laurannae Baking Co + Espresso and Pastry Bar, a well-known name in the area. “When you walk in there during the week, it feels like you’re walking into this really cool-looking café that also happens to have a church right there, attached to it,” Vanse says.
Couple this with a giant playground adjacent, and you get curious newcomers.
“I think — no, I know — a lot of people have been willing to consider stepping into a church who might not have otherwise,” he says. “That has been really, really cool.”
Welcome home, again
A fast-growing church, COTM is likely to establish other permanent facilities in the near future. To this end, Vanse says there are many elements of the construction of the Broken Arrow church that are likely to be used again and again.
First and foremost: creating places that are easy to be in.
“And I don’t just mean that they’re convenient, although I hope they are,” Vanse explains. “I mean spaces that put you at ease when you’re there. That allow you to have an amount of openness and a reception to God that maybe you wouldn’t otherwise.
“That’s been really the biggest win in the whole thing, for us.”