You know you are doing God’s will, says Rev. Ken Smith, when things fall into place to work together for good. That has happened to him and his church over and over again, though sometimes, he admits, at a slower than prayed-for pace.
Smith started Princeton Presbyterian Church (PPC) in his home in 1981. The first building was erected on Meadow Road in 1986. It grew to 250 families and a $1.6 million annual budget, and it is just finishing the addition of 22,000 square feet, tripling the size of the sanctuary. Added to the some 200,000 square feet that other Princeton faith communities have recently build, or are going to build (see sidebar, page 32), Smith points to a bricks-and-mortar indication that God is very much alive and present.
The new part of the church, designed in neo-gothic style by Joseph Saphire of Saphire + Albarran, is a 750-seat sanctuary. It is three-quarters of the size of the Princeton University Chapel. On the outside is a 100-foot tall tower topped by a cross. Featured on the inside (instead of the cross), is an abstract stained glass window that reflects the color and meaning of the Creation story rather than a visual telling of a Bible narrative.
Smith wanted everyone to feel comfortable at events held at the church, he explains. “We always spoke about the church being a destination, encompassing the full experience of people in the area.” A former race relations counselor in the U.S. Air Force, Smith values diversity and wanted the church to be a part of the community fabric. “Mix everyone together, and what would a church for that community look like? A type of community center for everyone from children, to teens, to families, singles, and seniors.”
“People have a preconceived idea of activities that happen in a church,” says Smith, reeling off a list of possibilities. Because the lower level is a banquet hall, and because caterers can be licensed to serve wine at a particular function, it will be an attractive choice for weddings and family reunions. A full-time event planner, Jacqueline R. Robinson, is doing the booking.
The sanctuary and banquet hall can also be rented out for secular functions such as corporate meetings. That may sound unlikely but is entirely possible, because the cross is on the tower, not inside the sanctuary. The Princeton Regional Chamber held an early evening networking session last year.
A more traditional use: concerts. With its vaulted ceilings and excellent acoustics, PPC’s sanctuary is a favorite of ensembles from Westminster Choir College. They perform there and do recordings there with less danger of having an ambulance siren pierce the pianissimo. Perhaps the most unusual use of the property is as a skateboard park. Other ways that the church reaches out to its neighbors: sports and arts clinics, English as a Second Language classes, preschool classes, and community festivals.
Smith was raised in Yonkers, the son of a fire department captain. Though the family was Roman Catholic, he enrolled at the last minute at Kings College, a non-denominational Christian school, and here he would have a personal encounter with God. (This story, too long to recount here, involves some adolescent derring-do on spring break. With $75 in his pocket he challenged God to get him to the Bahamas and back. Somehow everything, amazingly, fell into place.)
As a pilot in the U.S. Air Force he spent more time doing counseling (earning his master’s degree in human relations) than in the air. When he was a student at Princeton Theological seminary, the Bible studies in his home began to attract up to 50 people. At graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1981 he was offered a job as a pastor but yearned to start his own church in the relatively unchurched wilds of Princeton or West Windsor. “By nature I’m a builder,” he says. “After three years at the seminary, I got a pretty good sense of the demographics and felt it was a good place to start.”
He raised enough money to do a “church plant” (the term for starting a new congregation) by asking three potential church sponsors to stake him to a salary. In just one day, all three agreed to help, so he and his wife Carol were encouraged by this sign. Carol, a former Pan American stewardess did in-home child care when their children were young. They have five children; one was still born. Their three sons (builders, also) founded a multi-media game-creating firm, Silvertree Media, first at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh and then in Palo Alto. Their daughter left a job at Stanford to be a PhD candidate in neuro science at the University of San Diego. Carol is now employed by Princeton Regional Schools.
The church expanded from meeting at their Penns Neck home to the American Boychoir School, then to Princeton Borough hall (the first church to meet there), and expanding again to John Witherspoon School (also the first church to meet in a public school). With each expansion, Smith admits, “we lost some people.” Some are comfortable worshiping in a certain size congregation and in a certain space, others are not. For instance, those teaching at J.W. School did not want to worship there as well.
Smith first focused on Princeton Township as a potential site. The church invested $50,000 in fees and permits in trying to build on “The Ridge,” north of Route 206. “We received approval to build, on 12 acres, a church that would seat no more than 300 people.” That was too limiting for Smith. But because he had received an approval for the Ridge, he was able to testify on behalf of the Westerly Road Church when it was trying to get permits to build there. “I pointed out that a church had been approved for the Ridge 20 years ago, and some on the board remembered that.”
Next he turned to the wilds of West Windsor. He asked Jerry Lenaz, West Windsor’s land planner, for advice, and Lenaz pointed to Meadow Road. He asked how many acres to buy. How big do you want the congregation to be, Lenaz replied. Even then, Smith envisioned a 750-seat sanctuary. Then buy seven acres, said Lenaz.
At that time, before the overpass was built, Meadow Road was literally in the middle of nowhere. It had no water, no sewer, no electric, and bulldozers poised to move in. MarketFair was under construction. The overpass that would lead to MarketFair was on the books but had not been built.
Smith spotted a for sale sign lying in the grass along Meadow Road. Price: $250,000 for 14 acres. To his dismay, the congregation turned the purchase down. Undaunted, and still believing he was doing God’s will, he negotiated a deal that, by writing a $10,000 personal check, he could act as the owner for three months.
In a deal that any real estate agent would envy, he sold 7 of the 14 acres for $230,000 and went back to the congregation with the offer of seven acres for $20,000. “Somehow, everyone’s faith suddenly increased,” says Smith.
The initial one-story all-purpose building had its own well and what Smith calls “the most elegant sewer system in the state.” The 16-foot deep septic tank, when under construction, attracted Princeton University geologists who descended into its depths on wooden ladders, like Indiana Jones, to study the earth’s strata.
Further expansion would require water, gas, and sewer lines. The original plans showed these lines coming up Meadow Road. After the first developer went bankrupt, and Philadelphia-based Toll Brothers took over, Toll cut a new and cheaper deal. Under this plan, PPC would be left out, unable to connect.
On a hunch, Smith made a phone call to Robert Toll, found him to be friendly, and mentioned that if Toll kept to that plan, the church could not expand to be an effective resource for the community. No more was said. But Toll Brothers did bring those utilities in along Meadow Road, clearing the way for the church to expand once more. “It had to have been at considerable cost,” says Smith.
First, though, everyone had to agree to start a $6 million expansion. Smith reminded his board that, “by nature, I am a builder.” At that time, in addition to his job as a pastor, he also worked for the denomination as the regional coordinator of church planting. In seven years he helped start 140 new churches in the Northeast.
“We have waited 15 years,” he told the PPC board, “and there are many churches of our current size. Maybe it is time for me to move on — but if you want to take the next step, I am willing to stay.”
Pondering its growth decision, PPC took into account that in every denomination 50 percent of churches have 75 or fewer people attending. Eighty percent have less than 125 in attendance. Churches with more than 200 or 300 people in the building are in the top 10 percent.
The church said yes. It raised $2.5 million toward a $6.3 million 20-year mortgage held by Roma Bank. After the expansion, attendance increased by 30 percent, to 300.
Eager to make the acoustics perfect, Smith considered consulting an expert. But it would cost $100,000 and results were not guaranteed. Instead, the committee compared Saphire’s design with halls known for good acoustics and consulted with musical groups. At the first use of the new sanctuary (Westminster Choir College’s “Carmina Burana”) everyone held their breath. The acoustics were spectacularly perfect.
PPC envisions tapping the considerable resources of its members to stage community events at Duck Pond Park, adjacent to church property, purchased by West Windsor Township with Green Acres funds. Earlier the church had staged a Harvest Fest, the first of its kind and a huge success, attracting 6,000 people. Smith could point to this when he negotiated over the plans for the park. The dialogue went something like this: We can negotiate how high a wall we build between the properties — or our driveways can run side by side.
The church and park driveways now adjoin each other, and the church and the park (which has three soccer fields) share parking. Smith envisions co-hosting big events, like ethnic festivals. In the event of rains, the event could move to the banquet hall.
Last spring the church hosted a children’s music and dance show for the Indian community. “There were three generations present, all of whom are living in a new and unfamiliar culture. As good neighbors we were glad to welcome them in the name of the church and give them a good experience with Christians. Jesus loved the community and loved the people of the community. It takes 50 encounters with Christians before making a profession of faith. We may not know the results of our outreach for 10 or 20 years.”
Such bridge-building stepping stones help the community enter a space that gives glory to God, says Smith. “It also makes people — who might not otherwise cross the threshold of a church — comfortable in our space and potentially interested in the other things that go on there, namely worship and other outreach activities.”
Each step in the building process has been an adventure, he says. “When you’re on a learning curve, you don’t know the answers. That’s why you are reading the Bible,” says Smith. “I’ve been on a constant learning curve, and I’ve gotten used to it. The building is a only a reflection of what’s happening with the people and their outreach to a vibrant community. We love being part of a diverse community. Everyone is on a learning curve. We are all growing in our faith.“
Princeton Presbyterian Church, 545 Meadow Road, Princeton 08540; 609-987-1166; fax, 609-987-2468. Rev. Ken Smith. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. www.princetonpresbyterian.org.