The Church of Tomorrow

In December 1956, the First Christian Church of Oklahoma City moved from their beautiful cathedral on NW 10th Street in downtown Oklahoma City to their new, very modern campus at NW 36th and Walker. Both buildings are still standing as architectural gems of the past.

The original building was constructed in 1911 and was certainly a cathedral; it was referred to as “neoclassical architecture with a stone exterior” and featured a gold-domed roof that rivaled our domeless state capital. That building was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984—the state capital now has a beautiful dome.

Rendering of First Christian Church.

Rendering of First Christian Church.

When the congregation moved in December 1956, they relocated to yet another highly unique architectural wonder: a building that is referred to today as the iconic “dome church,” the “Egg Church,” and “Space Headquarters.” It has been the focus of many articles and interviews throughout its history and has been referred to as the church with a “space age architecture in an unexpected place.”

The futuristic design was the vision of a very unique, energetic, innovative, and determined Reverend Bill Alexander. The quickest and best way I can describe him is to say: he was the fifties version of Robert Schuler before anyone had ever heard the name Schuler. The Oklahoma Gazette published an extensive article on this pastor and church in May 2016. (Much of the historical information in this blog post came from that article, which you can read right here.)

It was once said of Bill Alexander that he “had the charm of George Clooney, the sense of fun of Walt Disney, and the gusto of Ernest Hemingway,” so perhaps it’s no surprise that the spirited new minister swept into town like a thunderstorm on a balmy spring afternoon. He quickly endeared himself to all. He called his vision for the new building, “The Church of Tomorrow.” Bill was encouraged to run for the U.S. Senate on the Republican ticket in 1950. He lost that race, but a few years later, he was the national chaplain for the Republican party during President Dwight Eisenhower’s first run for office. Once the Church of Tomorrow was built, it was featured in national publications such as Life Magazine, Newsweek, and Architectural Record.

The church held its first service in the new building on December 23, 1956 with 3,000 people filling the theatre seats. The lobby was unlike any church in the country with an escalator moving people from the lower main entrance to the auditorium entrance. Just outside the main entrance on the other side of a large parking lot was an outdoor amphitheater which seated 3,500 people. Two other buildings were built on the thirty-one-acre parcel of land: a youth center and an office building.

It was the largest church campus in the country at that time.

In a tragic turn of events, Reverend Alexander and his wife died in a private plane crash in 1960. They were flying to a speaking engagement in Hershey, Pennsylvania. He was 45 years old.

In the fall of 2016, with fewer than 100 members, the church could no longer afford the expenses associated with a 68,000-square-foot building and put it up for sale. It was nearly a year later when I read the announcement that they had drastically reduced the price.

I kept thinking, “It won’t hurt to at least inquire.” So, with some degree of fear and trembling, I called one of our Elders and asked him if he thought I had lost my mind to even suggest we look at it. He had been having similar thoughts. Today, we have a contract to purchase the property, which depends on what we discover in the due diligence period related to maintenance issues and updates to the interior of the building that would make it usable for our purposes.

For now, we are patiently working through this due diligence period where we do our homework. This is the season where we will dive into every aspect of the facility. We are evaluating the heat and air conditioning systems which will need to be replaced. We are making sure the 64-year-old building is structurally sound.

Then, there’s plumbing, electrical, and also the challenge of acoustics in a concrete dome. This may be one of the larger challenges we will face. The inside of a concrete dome is extremely unkind to the style of worship service we would do in that room. Can the dome accommodate our media needs including sound, lighting, video, and acoustics? Are there any known or unknown maintenance issues that will have to be dealt with on an ongoing basis?

At the same time, we want to get acquainted with our neighbors in that area of our city. We are a fairly doctrinally and socially conservative church with Wesleyan theological roots. There are a few things I know with great certainty: God loves every person in our city; we want everyone to know the power and privilege of following Jesus; and he calls us to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Call me old fashioned, but I still dream of a world that can love and value each other even as we disagree about many things. Jesus never shied away from sitting down with people who had questions, people who weren’t sure what they believed. Following his example, while we may never agree on some things, we value every person and love others as he loved us. This is why we are unapologetically a Christ-centered church committed to live by faith, be a voice of hope, and be known by love.

I have no idea where this venture will lead us. It could be a dead end and at least we’ll know we tried. It could also be a life-changing, city-changing, Christ-exalting venture.

So this is why we pray and wait.

(Most of the historical information in this blog post quotes verbatim an article published in the Oklahoma Gazette on May 13, 2016, written by Lynne Rostochil. Lynne is the granddaughter of the architect, R. Duane Conner, who designed the iconic church building.)