By Alex Russell
Looking at Columbia Baptist Church in Falls Church today, one will find a busy, expansive construction area adjacent to the original building, with myriad vehicles and a tall, operating steel crane. This work-in-progress is itself the result of over a decade of planning and fundraising carried out by Columbia Baptist with the goal of renovating the established space and creating a new, modern area for all visitors.
Jim Baucom, senior pastor at Columbia, told the News-Press that they had been “working on the possibility of this building” for about 15 years, in a process that has incorporated “several different plans [and] architects.”
Part of the impetus for this project was functionality. Baucom explained that Columbia had been “overcrowded,” with his duties increasing to “five times a weekend.” Brett Flanders, executive director at the church, concurred on the capacity issue, saying that this renovation is “something that’s been needed for a while.”
The church has a storied history, founded by abolitionists in rural Virginia.
The current project, with the expected completion date falling somewhere in early 2023, according to Baucom, will feature “a new front door” with an entry foyer, making on-site navigation for newcomers easy. As Flanders explains, the current building has “26 doors” that have made it hard for people to tell exactly where to come in.
In addition to remaking the church’s “front door,” there will be a new, extended, “state-of-the-art worship center,” a bigger, redone parking lot, an enhanced auditorium space set to accommodate approximately 4,400 worshippers, new education areas to be used by the Child Development Center, and a new church steeple, which will be “the highest building in the City, aside from radio towers.”
This new Columbia Baptist complex will also have a coffee shop, providing an added opportunity for people to meet and converse.
Regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, Flanders shared that the biggest hurdle had to do with “supply chain issues, mostly [dealing] with steel.” Construction was “paused for two to three months” due to the hold on the necessary steel. The on-site work utilizing the crane started up early last month. Flanders reports that they are “three quarters of the way done with the steel.”
The lockdown was not without its silver lining, as Baucom highlighted that the Covid-induced pause helped the overall process “when we did the site work.”
During the lockdown, the church focused on making sure new parking was paved and ready, as well as accomplishing more site work — like removing old pavement — before resuming the larger work. “A lot of the facility is older,” Baucom added, so the lockdown helped set aside time to accomplish important redevelopment.
As construction progresses, Flanders views many components of the work “almost like an archeological dig,” allowing people to see “what kind of changes were made” throughout the building’s long history.
During “some of the site work, we found an old septic tank from the early 1900’s.” Inside the current structure, “changes in elevation” and slight “shifts in [the] hallways” remind Flanders of the long-standing, rich history tied to the church and the surrounding area.
With a construction project of this size, providing funding and decreasing future debt was one of the church’s priorities from the start.
Besides donations from “long-time members,” Flanders said that “capital campaigns” made up the bulk of their funds — a process by which people commit money over an extended duration of time towards expenses incurred, in this case, through construction and renovation — eventually raising “over $11 million.”
Looking ahead, Baucom reflects on the ease in Covid restrictions and how this will continue in precipitating people finding their way back to in-person worship “at their own pace.”
“For some people,” Baucom adds, “it’s just hard to break back into [that] social rhythm.”
He acknowledges that, moving forward, “it’s going to take a while for us to recover,” but he also maintains that the church as a whole will need to adopt a new outlook when construction ends. It will be a time to “reposition.” The goal, as Baucom put it, is “growing the church that we are, as opposed to the church that we were.”
“Churches can’t accommodate every purpose,” but Baucom hopes to see Columbia branch out and have their new, redeveloped auditorium space — which will be “the largest auditorium in the City, by far” — fulfill other, perhaps music or theater-focused, uses.
Flanders adds that after all the planning, fundraising, construction, and renovation, he is looking forward to welcoming visitors into a new vision of Columbia that is ready for more people, more events, and greater community involvement within the Little City. “I’m excited to continue to be able to service the community… It’s been a long time coming.”