Samaritan's Purse

It’s elementary

Building a church without a church

October 23rd, 2019 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments


Set up.

Take down.

Load up.


CEDAR PARK  Every Sunday at 8:30 a.m., members of Cornerstone Community Church in Cedar Park, northwest of Austin, transform an elementary school into a place of worship. Some call it “church in a box” or “portable church.” With no traditional church building to call their own, the growing SBTC church plant is laying the foundation for something more concrete and eternal.

The 2-year-old congregation rents space for its Sunday morning services from the Leander Independent School District. Worshipers meet in the Knowles Elementary School gym surrounded by posters that direct grade school students to their assigned lines for P.E. drills or afterschool dismissal. One cartoon image of the Caped Crusader declares “I am Batman!” Others feature ostriches, a lion and poodles in cheerleader uniforms. Upon closer examination, the décor hints at biblical truths.

The messages exhort students to “care about others” and “speak nicely,” and proclaim “we’ve got spirit … how about you?” echoing ancient truths from Micah 6:8, Proverbs 22:11 and Acts 1:8.

“It doesn’t work like normal here. But it works,” said Stu Smithson, pastor of Cornerstone Community Church.

With assistance from 34 members of their sponsor, Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin, the new congregation began meeting in October 2017 and officially launched in January 2018. Since then the church has added a full-time family pastor, a part-time administrator and contracts with their music leader.

Attendance has grown to about 120, including 33 of the 34 “launch crew” who were selected, in part, because they live in the area. Traveling 15 miles to church—and inviting their neighbors to join them—was counterintuitive to creating Christian community close to home, Smithson said.

“One of the things that we say over and over again at our church is that we want to reach people where they are and help them to take the next step in their relationship with Jesus,” he said.

Having access to a gathering place for worship only three and a half hours a week poses unique challenges and opportunities the congregation is not looking to change any time soon. Lacking 24-7 access to a building forces them to rethink the role a building plays in the life of the church body.

Where Sunday and Wednesday evening programs in a church building often serve as an avenue for introducing people to the church and ultimately the gospel, Smithson urges his congregation to have gospel conversations within the context of their daily lives.

Small group meetings in members’ homes aid that effort. Organized by proximity to the host home, the meetings provide an intimate yet casual environment where neighbors are introduced to the gospel and hopefully discipled.

Smithson said most Cornerstone Community Church visitors grew up in church but drifted away. Others never attended church or have “a bad taste in their mouth” from past religious experiences. And meeting in a school works in their favor, he said.

“We’re not scary. We’re an elementary school,” he said. “We play to that. This is as real as it gets.”

The task of reaching Cedar Park and Leander with the gospel is daunting, Smithson admitted. Neighboring Austin grows by 130 new residents every day. Many are spilling into these once rural communities.

And existing churches have not kept up with the influx. Smithson crunched the numbers: With a combined population of 133,000 and growing, there are 4.7 churches per 10,000 Cedar Park and Leander residents. Many of those are young families. Within a four-mile radius of Knowles are six more elementary schools serving 6,500 children.

“We’re just getting whooped,” Smithson said. “You could launch a 1,000-member church every week and not keep up.”

Reaching Out, Drawing In

The church has used traditional advertising—mailers and door hangers—to introduce itself to its neighbors. But word of mouth and one-on-one conversations have proven the most effective means of introduction.

“It’s a fast-paced community. We compete for people’s time, especially people with kids,” said Smithson, a father of four. So church members, many with children of their own, invent ways to insert the gospel into that time.

Some volunteer with community organizations or at their children’s schools. Last Halloween, in lieu of a fall festival usually hosted at a church, members sat out in their driveways to give out candy and strike up conversations with passing trick-or-treating families. One church member grilled and served hot dogs.

And this year’s outdoor Easter services drew one family at the urging of their 4-year-old son. 

“They felt very loved and welcomed and came back,” said the pastor. A few Sundays later, moments before worship services began, Smithson stood with the parents outside the school bathrooms and led them in prayer as they professed faith in Christ.

He said the most significant connection the church has with the community is through the school. By stewarding well the rented space and seeking the good of Knowles Elementary employees, Smithson believes Cornerstone Community Church will be seen as more than a tenant.

The school receives Title I federal education funding because of the number of low-income students enrolled. And until Cornerstone members stepped up, the school never had mentors for those students. Now there are four.

Some men in the church volunteer with Watch D.O.G.S., a national program that encourages fathers and father-figures to devote one day a year on their children’s elementary school campuses. The church also cooperates with the Knowles Elementary PTA, offering its audio-visual equipment and volunteers for PTA-sponsored events.

In August, teachers returning to campus for in-service training were treated to a breakfast and goodie bags. And church members will continue serving occasional luncheons throughout the school year. Four church members, including Smithson’s wife, Sarah, work on campus and keep the congregation apprised of how they can encourage school staff.

As Cornerstone Community Church begins its third year on campus, Smithson said they are not looking for land or the opportunity to build because of exorbitant land and construction costs.

However, they are looking for ever more opportunities to reach Central Texas with the gospel and build disciples for Christ’s kingdom.