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Originally published January 13, 2013 at 7:01 PM | Page modified January 13, 2013 at 9:18 PM

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Mars Hill celebrates new home in historic downtown church

Mars Hill Church moved Sunday into one of Seattle's oldest church buildings, the former home of First United Methodist Church.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle's founding fathers wouldn't have known what to make of the musical ensemble that took the stage Sunday at Mars Hill Church's new downtown home.

Electric guitars, drums and a keyboard struck up a rollicking version of "How Great Thou Art," as nearly 400 people gathered for a service that marked the rebirth of one of the city's oldest church buildings — the place where pioneer families including the Dennys, the Bells and the Borens worshipped.

It took a little tinkering to find the sweet spot between hymns with a rocking beat and the acoustics of the century-old First United Methodist Church building, said Tim Gaydos, lead pastor for Mars Hill's downtown congregation. "It was built for voices," he said.

So the band dialed back the rhythm section and let the singers take a more prominent role.

The adjustment is typical of the way the congregation intends to proceed, with respect for the building and its place in Seattle history, Gaydos said.

"We come to this place very humbly," he told the congregation, joining the band onstage to extend a welcome before the 9 a.m. sermon.

The First United Methodist Church is an outgrowth of Seattle's earliest Christian congregation. Originally housed in other buildings, in 1910 the church dedicated its grand, Beaux Arts-style sanctuary at Fifth Avenue and Marion Street. The terra cotta-topped dome is a city landmark. But the dwindling congregation decided to sell in the early 2000s, kicking off a debate over the building's fate.

The issue was settled in 2007 with a deal that preserved the sanctuary and allowed for development of an office tower adjacent to it. The economic downturn put the tower project on hold, and the sanctuary has been used as a performance hall for the past several years.

Mars Hill, a fast-growing, nondenominational church, agreed to lease the building for five years. Gaydos estimated his downtown congregation numbers about 1,400 people.

Mars Hill's previous home in downtown Seattle, a remodeled Belltown nightclub, could hardly have been more different, said Lauren Day, a deacon in the church. "To go from a nightclub to a beautiful old historic building is a pretty radical jump," she said.

But old buildings have their quirks, added Justin Dean, communications director. Plumbing problems forced the church to close the restrooms and truck in portable toilets for Sunday's grand opening. "It's particularly unfortunate in 25-degree weather," he said.

When volunteers peeled back stained carpeting in the church basement, though, they found fir floors that now gleam after refinishing.

The downtown location brings the church closer to the Union Gospel Mission, where members work with the homeless, Gaydos said. The church will also use its new home as a base to continue ongoing efforts to rescue people from prostitution.

"There are girls 12, 13, 14, on our streets," Gaydos said. "It's heartbreaking."

Founded in 1996, Mars Hill is one of the country's largest nondenominational churches. About 14,000 members attend 11 branches in Washington and three in other states, including New Mexico.

The church's conservative views have occasionally engendered controversies in largely liberal Seattle. Women cannot serve as pastors or elders at Mars Hill, and founding pastor Mark Driscoll has derided female leadership in other churches. Driscoll has called yoga demonic and dismissed Mormonism as a cult.

But Gaydos said he and other church leaders constantly strive to be more humble, loving and selfless. "I know I'm a failure," he said. "I say dumb things all the time. I know I don't represent Jesus as well as I should."

The congregation doesn't plan any major remodels. The goal is to preserve the space in its original condition — except for the plumbing — as much as possible, said Dean.

To that end, Sunday's band also featured a very traditional instrument: the church's old pipe organ.

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or sdoughton@seattletimes.com

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