Several churches in the area have opened in spaces that are not your typical church buildings. Berachah Church has transformed Middletown’s former Verity Middle School into a church campus. NICK GRAHAM/STAFF

This was a Middletown middle school. Now it’s part of a trend involving vacant buildings.

And that’s fine with the pastors who say the church’s foundation is its people, not its brick and mortar.

Recently churches, looking for new homes to hold their growing congregations, have moved into vacant school buildings, store fronts, empty warehouses and closed movie theaters. Church leaders say they’re being financially responsible because remodeling the empty buildings is less expensive than new construction.

Berachah Church in Middletown, for instance, purchased the former Verity Middle School, 1900 Johns Road, in 2015 from the Middletown City Schools District, renovated the property and now holds its services in the former gymnasium, said Pastor Lamar Ferrell.

Services at Berachah are being held in the sixth location since it was founded in 1990, Ferrell said. Services have been held in the basement of his parents’ home in Springboro, Springboro Public Library, Middletown Area YMCA, First Avenue in Middletown, Middletown High School auditorium and now the former Verity school.

Pastor Reagan Wagoner from Grace Point Fellowship, 1455 E. Second St., Franklin, said his church purchased the former Grander building for $1 million, and has spent about $400,000 in renovations. That $1.4 million investment is much less than if the church had purchased property and built a church, he said.

The Village Church in Hamilton has moved into the basement of the former Sears building, 210 S. Second St., said Pastor Michael Graham. Before that, he said, services were held in the basement of the former Moose Lodge and in the YMCA.

Even though the services are held in a basement with no windows, Graham said the building “suits our needs” perfectly. His church doesn’t need a steeple or stained-glass windows to reach its congregation, he said.

“The building is just the shell,” he said. “We just need a place to meet.”

He often tells people who ask about his unique church location: “We meet as the church. We don’t go to the church.”

Graham, 36, said his church averages about 200, including a large youth program.

Four years ago, Wagoner said the church met in his Springboro home and attracted about 40 people every Sunday. Then for three years, services were held in Dennis Elementary School in Springboro. Wagoner said the church’s advertising was hampered because it was only allowed to put signs on Ohio 741 for a few hours every Sunday.

“It was more about word of mouth,” he said.

Now, he said, the church, located between a McDonald’s and Frisch’s, has greatly increased its visibility and is attracting church-goers from Springboro, Franklin and beyond.

“Our focus is reaching people,” Wagoner said. “We want to be family friendly and take our message outside the church.”

The church is building a gym that is much-needed in the Franklin community, he said. He wants the church to be utilized by the community every day, not just Sundays.

“We want to reach the next generation,” he said.

There’s another benefit of the church’s location, Wagoner said with a laugh. Since the church is sandwiched between two restaurants, those who eat after church don’t have far to walk.

In 2015, Berachah purchased the former Middletown school and 58 acres for $293,000, and Ferrell said the church has invested $1.7 million renovating the 77,000-square-foot school that was built in 1970.

The property was appraised at $740,000, or 40 percent of its sale price. By selling the property, George Long, then the district’s business manager, said the district didn’t have to demolish the school at a cost of $330,000 and that money was used renovating Middletown High School and building Middletown Middle School.

Ferrell called the building “functional” and to be effective, it doesn’t need to look like a traditional church.

“The people are the steeple,” he said. “We are the church.”

The church has built “Elley’s Hope Playground” for children with disabilities at nearby Lefferson Park and has hosted “National Night Out” on the church property.

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