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The King’s Arms Church, Bedford was planted out of Woodside Church as a town centre church in late 1992. We believed that the town centre was where God wanted us to be, as the King’s Arms Project, our work with the homeless in and around this area, had already been going for 3 years. For the next 8 years we met in a school canteen very close to the town centre and the church grew to around 250 people meeting on Sunday mornings and evenings.
It was around the year 2000 that God started prompting us to begin the process of looking for a home that was ours. The school canteen was of limited size, the logistics of setting up and down each week were draining and we were paying a significant amount of money in rent which could have been put toward buying a building of our own.
With little idea of what we wanted, we started to look what might be available. When anything came on the market around the town centre, we made contact with the owners and ‘pushed the door’. Over the next few years we investigated at least 20 properties. Some were written off very quickly, while with others we thought and schemed how we might use the building to see if it were suitable for our needs.
In parallel we started discussions with the planners at the Local Authority to see what issues we might have to face in getting Planning Permission. They were also helpful in making suggestions as to what we might look at and also what it would be sensible not to look at.
At around this time the Elders told the church of their vision to get a building, and together the church prayed regularly that God would open doors for us. People bought into the vision and a building team was formed to try to move things along. We also started a building fund with the first offering totalling around £30K – it definitely would not get us a building, but it was a start.
Then in March 2004 we made an offer of £220K to purchase the upper three floors above the Pilgrims Progress Pub right in the centre of Bedford. We got very excited about the possibility of owning and developing a church building above a pub named after the book written by John Bunyan who was a Bedford boy. There was much disappointment when our offer was rejected and it took several months before we had recovered sufficiently to start the quest over again of searching for a building.
Over the next 4 years we made offers on a further five buildings, some a mile or so from the town centre (which caused some people to be a little unhappy), and all five offers were rejected. During this period the church had grown to around 300 people with lots of young married couples who were producing babies, and we had building gift days most years. By 2008 we had £0.5M. The church was passionate in prayer as we believed that God wanted us to have a building. People were constantly on the lookout for possible buildings. If a building had a ‘for sale’ sign outside than someone would quickly let me know and I would try and investigate it.
As a result of all this activity we got to know many of the local developers, land/property owners, bank managers, loan providers, planners etc etc. These varied contacts got to learn about our desire for a building and gave us advice, all of which became very useful when we eventually found the building that God had for us.
One of the buildings that we made an offer for was an old Crayola Crayon factory. It was enormous: it was about 80,000 sq ft in size, on an 8 acre site. It was around a mile from the town centre and it had been empty for several years. A visiting speaker at our Leaders Weekend that year had a prophetic word that the building God had for us had lots on windows and this building certainly had many windows. So we viewed the building and got very excited about the possibilities. Eventually we made an offer of £1.5M in Dec 2007 which was rejected as the vendor considered it a derisory offer.
We were gutted and discouraged and began to wonder if God did actually mean us to have a building of our own. Over the next 6 months two other buildings came, looked promising and went as our offers to buy were rejected.
A year later in the Autumn of 2008 the Crayola Crayon factory was still empty with large advertising boards at the entrance saying that it was for sale. So we decided to try again. Things had moved on and the vendor was now planning to divide the site up into three parts. We commenced negotiations on the 30,000 sq ft front section of the building on a three acre section of the site and the vendor was seeking £1.5M for this much smaller section. After much discussion, prayer, negotiations and futile attempts to get a reduction in the price we signed a Heads of Terms document in Nov 2008. It was a scary time as we wondered what we were committing ourselves to, where the money would come from and whether this really was the building that God had for us.
Things now moved on a pace with solicitors generating a contract which was finally signed in May 2009. This was a tortuous process with last minute phone calls in the early hours from the US while attending conference. We now had to get planning approval for ‘change of use’ and getting this went against the policy in the local plan for the borough. However, God was good as we had a planning officer who attended the King’s Arms Church and he helped us put together a case which was 4 inches thick when it was submitted in June and then went before the Planning Committee for a decision in late August. Fifty of us crowded into the committee room and heard a wind farm application being rejected in front of another 50 rowdy objectors, before our application was considered. It was a bit of an anti-climax when the committee approved our application in less than a minute and we all cheered like crazy and quickly left to celebrate our success.
In parallel with all the contract negotiations and planning application work we had been seeking to find a bank to give us a mortgage. By now we had raised £0.8M and needed a loan of £1.05M to enable us to complete the purchase and refurbish the building so we could use it on a Sunday. Discussions took place with several banks but eventually we decided to go with Unity Trust Bank who as a condition of providing the loan required us to move our banking to them. So finally in Dec 2009 everything fell into place and the purchase was completed. We now owned a building after 10 years of searching.
However, this was just the end of the beginning! We were now in a situation where we owned a building that we couldn’t use and we were paying around £8K per month in loan repayments. In addition we had offices we were paying for elsewhere in town where the church staff were located and we were still paying to rent the school canteen every Sunday!
Fortunately, our new building had a suite of offices which volunteers from the church worked hard to clean and decorate so we could move in during March 2010 and vacate the offices in town. We also had another 13 very attractive offices on the first floor and these we quickly rented out to other charities and businesses. Since then we have enjoyed almost 100% occupancy of these offices bringing in around £50K per annum of rental income.
The rest of the building was made up of three large dark, damp, grim looking warehouses and a few other smaller rooms which were equally horrible and unusable. Sometime previously an architect had been appointed, many different plans drawn up, debated, revised and revised again, before coming up with something that seemed to satisfy our needs. It consisted of a 550 seater auditorium, welcome area, a large area and rooms for the kids/youth and a potential sports hall which was used initially for storage. Having got the plans finalised quotes were sought from local and less local builders and in June 2010 we signed a contract for £0.5M to bring the building to a state where it could be used on a Sunday.
Getting the design right was hugely important for us. We didn't just want a functional church building, but we dreamed of a space that would represent who are, make guests feel relaxed and at home, and also demonstrate the very nature of God - HE makes all things new! We wanted to create a building that would be inviting to people who wouldn't normally step foot into a church building! We employed a branding agency to help us through the process of working out who we are and what we want to communicate through our interior design and also through our website, printed materials, and signage. Our design team then ran with this brand and set to work making it a reality.
Building work progressed with relatively few problems, and in October 2010 we were able to hold a Father’s Heart Conference and start meeting in the building each Sunday. In many respects things were still very basic with lots of things still to be finished off, but most importantly the building was useable and we finally said goodbye to the school canteen.
So we formally opened the building, now renamed King’s House, one Sunday in November 2010. The building was packed with folks from the King’s Arms and other churches around the town that we had invited. It was an amazing time of celebration and thanks to God for his provision.
Over the next few years we continued to further develop the building with a coffee shop, fully fitted out welcome area, two additional meeting rooms each for up to 100 people and numerous other improvements as finances allowed. In the first year of meeting at King’s House the church grew by over 30% and has continued to grow by around 10% in each year since such that we are now approaching 1,000 people plus around 300 children/youth.
While acquiring a building is very difficult and challenging the story does not end there, as the operation and maintenance of a building also has significant challenges which should not be underestimated. Providing the finance to service the near £100K per annum repayments on the various loans is a continuing challenge, together with operating, maintenance and staff costs. Detailed cash flow monitoring and forecasts are required to ensure that we don’t default on payments. We keep all building related income and expenditure separate from the church to ensure that we understand exactly what the building is costing to operate both now and in the future.
So coming up to date: on most days of the week the building is busy with church activities and also meetings/events operated by local businesses and charities which provide us with income. The coffee shop and rental of the facilities to other organisations are now operated within a subsidiary company which had a turnover in excess of £300K in 2015. Sadly, not all of this is profit, but the 15% or so that is helps pay for the running of the building.
We estimate that around 35,000 people came to the building for business meetings or to visit our coffee shop in 2015 and they often ask, “what is this building?” or “I never felt peace like this before” and are amazed when they learn that it is a church. A senior person from the local council recently came to the building and said “I understand that this is the venue of choice in Bedford”. Thus in many different ways King’s House is demonstrating to the people of Bedford that the church is not dead, as the media would have us believe, but alive, active and relevant to the people of our community and town. While owning a building is not essential for a church to grow and be successful, it certainly helps!
Elder and Chair of Trustees
King’s Arms Church, Bedford
Appendix - Search for a Church Building
The King’s Arms Church has been seeking to acquire a Church Building in or close to the centre of Bedford since 2000 and have investigated numerous possibilities.
Prior to the acceptance of our offer, made in October 2008, to acquire the front section of the Crayola building, formal offers had been made for six properties, none of which were accepted. These were:
- Pilgrims Progress Pub, River Street. In March 2004 an offer was made to J D Wetherspoon plc to purchase the upper three floors of the pub.
- Mission Night Club, Mill Street. In May 2005 an offer was made to RSN Properties to purchase the old Howard Chapel which was then operating as a Nightclub.
- Keys House, Bromham Road. In June 2006 an offer was made to Leopald Farmer to purchase the 17,000 sq ft office block.
- Crayola Building, Ampthill Road. In December 2007 an offer was made to Frontier Estates to purchase the 80,000 sq ft offices and warehouses on the complete 8 acre site.
- Field Boxmore Building, Ampthill Road. In March 2008 an offer was made to Brown & Lee to purchase the 46,565 sq ft warehouse and offices on a 2.21 acre site.
- St Luke’s Church, St Peter’s Street. In July 2008 an offer was made to the Moravian Church to purchase the church building and grounds.
Other properties investigated, for which offers were not made, include:
Aug 07. ‘Focus Do it all’. Enquiries were made about the Ashburnham Road and Rope Walk facilities. However they were only available for lease at around £300K per annum.
Jul 07. ‘Attica’ Night Club and ‘Crystals’ Pole Dancing Club, St Peter’s Street. No suitable main auditorium.
May 07. Annex to Granada Building, Ampthill Road. The facilities had no auditorium suitable for our needs and the Vendor was not interested in selling to us due to the fact that he believed he already had a buyer.
May 07. St Luke’s Church, St Peter’s Street. The church was due to close in Oct 2008 and we expressed an interest to the owners, the Moravian Church, in buying the site. However it was relatively small and development would be difficult due to it being in a Conservation Area and the building may also be Listed.
Apr 07. Empty site owned by Charles Wells on the corner of Ford End Road and Havelock Street. The vendor was not interested in selling the land.
Mar 07. Bishopstone Court, Ashburnham Road. No main auditorium suitable for our needs.
Mar 07. Courts Warehouse, Perkins Road. The asking price for the building was beyond our means.
Mar 07. Kingfisher Wharf, London Road, Bedford. Location not suitable.
Jan 07. Mt Zion Church, Midland Road. The owners are not prepared to sell.
Dec 06. St Bede’s School, Bromham Road. No main auditorium suitable for our needs. To redevelop the site was judged to be very complex and expensive. The site was better suited to residential development.
Oct 06. Land in Ford End Road in front of Gasometers. Lambert Smith Hampton were approached about the possibility of buying some land. The site is still vacant and despite further enquiries no progress was made.
Aug 06. Empty Office Blocks in Kingsway and Cauldwell Road. No main auditorium suitable for our needs.
Apr 06. Hazelwood Foods Factory, Ford End Road. We failed to make contact with the owners of this site.
Mar 06. CD Bramall, Broadway. Attempts were made to purchase part of the site without success.
Feb 06. DMU Site, Warwick Avenue. The purchase of some of the buildings or land met with no success.
Nov 05. Annex to BT Tower, St John’s Street. No main auditorium suitable for our needs.
Nov 05. Porter Blacks, High Street. No main auditorium suitable for our needs.
Feb 05. Town Centre West, Bus Station Development. Discussions were held with St Mowden on the establishment of a church/community facility within the development. They were not interested.
Apr 04. Rear of 23/27 High Street. Enquiries were made to Stephen Smart & Company about the possibility of a development to the rear of this High Street property backing onto the Castle Mound Car Park.
??? Myler Steel, Warehouse, Ampthill Road. No main auditorium suitable for our needs.
??? Double Glazing Warehouse, Dean Street.
??? Rear of Shop, St John’s Street.