Lawrence church strikes deal to locate in former Hy-Vee grocery store on Sixth Street

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The former Hy-Vee grocery store at 4000 W. Sixth St. is set to house Velocity Church, once the city approves final plans for the project. The about 30,000 square feet of the 67,000-square-foot building, pictured in March 2021, would initially be used to house the church. But Velocity anticipates a second phase that would grow the church into more of the building.

One of the mission projects that Velocity Church pastor and co-founder Justin Jenkins is particularly proud of is an effort that gave away an entire semitrailer of groceries to people in need. Maybe he should have sensed at that moment that his church was destined to become one of the biggest in the city by moving into a former grocery store building.

Indeed, that is the plan for Velocity Church. It has filed plans with the city to move into the vacant Hy-Vee Food & Drug building at 4000 W. Sixth St. Maybe some of you were guessing or hoping that a new grocery store chain would sweep into that spot. But for those of you who pay close attention, I did report in December that there was speculation in real estate circles that a church was closing in on a deal for the big store property.

The chances of a grocery store going into the space probably were pretty slim all along, given that Hy-Vee maintained ownership of the building after it closed its Sixth Street store in November 2019. It likely wasn’t going to do anything to facilitate another grocery chain coming to town, since Hy-Vee is still competing for Lawrence customers with its Clinton Parkway store.

But, I’ll be honest, when Hy-Vee closed in late 2019, I wouldn’t have guessed that a church would be a likely tenant for the building. Lawrence hasn’t been a place for mega churches. Jenkins hasn’t attached that label to Velocity — and I don’t know at what point a church becomes mega — but I do think it is fair to say this is a big development in the world of Lawrence churches.

Plans call for the church to occupy up to 30,000 square feet of space in phase one of the project, with an auditorium of about 500 seats. Phase 2 would take more of the 67,000-square-foot grocery building and would include seating for up to 1,000 people.

“I really don’t know if that will make us the largest in town or not,” Jenkins told me.

What he does know is that the opportunity to buy the building was too big to pass up. He points back to that mission effort with the semitrailer of groceries as a reason.

“The thing that prevents us from doing those types of service projects more often is that we don’t have the facility to do it,” he said.

Velocity primary has been operating out of shared space at two other community gathering spots — the Lawrence Arts Center and Theatre Lawrence. Before the pandemic, Velocity was offering services at both locations. Now, it is operating only at Theatre Lawrence.

When Velocity moves into the new space — Jenkins hopes that will be in September — all church activities will be based out of the new building, which is part of the larger shopping center at Sixth Street and Monterey Way.

That will be a different look for a Lawrence shopping center, and one that tenants of that shopping center certainly will be paying attention to. The grocery store was the anchor tenant for the development, meaning it brought lots of cars and eyeballs by all the other shops in the center. There will be a different dynamic with a church. It will be interesting to watch whether this change will lead to other changes at the center.

Jenkins said the church was exploring plans to rent to other commercial tenants some of the space that it doesn’t use for church purposes. But he said he didn’t have any specific types of tenants to mention at this time that might be complementary uses for the church.

As for other things to look for in the new church building, Jenkins cited a huge lobby, plus a children’s ministry area that the church will invest in heavily.

“We really want to have the premier kids ministry in Kansas,” Jenkins said. “That has been a challenge when we are portable because we have to use the space that is available to us.”

One other area of emphasis will be media production space. Jenkins said the church uses a lot of of media as part of its services. For example, the church recently completed an entire sermon series where Jenkins never gave a typical sermon from a pulpit. Instead, the series was focused on movie clips that had sermons incorporated into the audio and video. That type of work requires audio and video production rooms that the new building will be able to accommodate.

Given that, expect the church’s auditorium to be high-tech. Jenkins said he envisioned allowing community organizations and other people to use the auditorium. He thinks that can be part of the church’s mission; plus, he said there is a need for a certain size of space in town.

“There are quite a few places that seat about 300 people, and then there is the Lied Center that seats like 2,000,” Jenkins said. “We think there will be opportunities to do things for the community when you talk about a need for an auditorium.”

Jenkins said he couldn’t provide an accurate estimate of how large the church’s congregation is today. Such estimates are difficult during the pandemic. He said the pandemic is another reason more space may be important.

“A lot of this is relative to COVID and social distancing,” Jenkins said. “A 500-seat auditorium won’t have 500 people in there if we are still in a time with social distancing.”

Velocity is about to celebrate its 10th year in Lawrence. Jenkins and his wife, Marissa Jenkins, founded the church about a year after moving to Lawrence. Justin said he grew up as the son of a preacher and was around churches throughout his childhood. However, as an adult, he said many of his friends didn’t go to church, and that set him and Marissa thinking about “planting” a church.

“We wanted to be part of a church that we could invite our friends to and connect with them through church,” he said. “The building is really just a tool, like anything else, to do that.”

The church is Bible-based, but is not affiliated with any particular denomination, he said. It also does not report to a larger parent church, he said. And as its website said, the church takes an attitude of embracing risk, which may partially explain the big space it is about to move into.

“We refuse to insult God with small thinking and safe living,” the church’s website proclaims. “We pray big prayers, take bold steps of faith, and watch God move.”


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