The sign hanging above New Life Christian Center is simple, spelling out "church" in red letters.
New Life's pastor, the Rev. Archie Harris, said he was saving money by only purchasing the six-letter sign when the church moved to Laurel's Pheasant Run Shopping Center in 1996.
That sign soon will be changing, along with most of the signs at Pheasant Run, after New Life purchased the entire shopping center, a sale that was finalized Friday, March 29.
"It's a Good Friday for us in two ways," Harris said.
The church purchased the property from owner David Young for $3.2 million, with the hope of completely paying for the sale in five to seven years, Harris said.
The church plans to keep the current tenants in place while renaming the shopping center and building a multipurpose building on nearly 3 acres of land that was part of the sale and is currently vacant, according to Harris.
The church would also like to begin offering a day care center, after-school program and a drug rehab program in some of its new space, Harris said.
"I think it's important that we impact the community," Harris said. "Our vision is to not only preach the Gospel to the people in the local communities, but it's also to impact the community with outreach, services and programs."
The church hasn't decided what the new name of the shopping center will be, but residents of the area can expect to see new signs and exterior upgrades to the plaza as soon as this year.
"Our focus is to revitalize this plaza," Harris said.
Storefront churches growing
While storefront churches may not seem traditional, Kevin McGhee, pastor of Bethany Community Church and president of the Laurel Clergy Association, said storefront churches are becoming more common in Laurel.
"It's becoming increasingly common to use commercial space," he said. "It's hard to find land, and there's not a lot of enthusiasm to move into residential neighborhoods."
In Laurel, the City of Zion Church, Laurel Lakes Christian Center and Faith Fellowship Community Church are all located in commercial space, McGhee said.
Bethany Community Church spent 10 years as a storefront church in the Laurel Lakes Corporate Center, after five years of holding services at Laurel High School.
McGhee said the main benefits of a storefront church are abundant parking on Sundays and the lower cost of renting compared to a mortgage makes it easier to start a church.
He believes storefront churches will become a future trend in Laurel.
"Across the country, it's pretty typical," McGhee said.
Karl Brendle, Laurel's director of community and business planning, said city officials believe churches are a "perfect complement" to office and retail space.
Brendle said parking is a major factor because when churches hold services, most of the other tenants are closed.
He said the city doesn't look kindly on churches formed in homes because residential streets are then overcrowded with vehicles.
Harris said he became serious about purchasing the shopping plaza about 14 years ago and the church was able to raise the funds needed through tithing, offerings and a pledge campaign.
"We have a very faithful group of people who genuinely love God and are very faithful to the ministry," he said.
New Life celebrated the closing of the sale on Good Friday.
Church elder Michael Gaither said it was only a matter of time before the congregation raised enough funds to purchase the property.
"I knew we were going to get it, I just didn't know when," he said. "To see it really come to pass, it's just a blessing."
New Life's history can be traced to 1996 when Harris started a Bible study at the former Holiday Inn on Route 198. New Life officially held its first service at the Holiday Inn on Easter Sunday in 1996 and moved into the Pheasant Run Shopping Center on New Year's Eve that year.
Harris, who began his ministry in 1989 in Hanover, formed New Life with his wife, Audrey, who is co-pastor at New Life.
Audrey Harris said the congregation is "elated" with the purchase of Pheasant Run.
But outside of the increased opportunities for outreach in the community, she said "having this property means nothing."
New Life's next community outreach program is a goal for church members to dedicate 500 hours from April 13 to 20 for volunteer work at a local food bank, hospital and other locations.
"It's all about what we can do in the community and effect change in people's lives," Audrey Harris said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun