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Flocks Finding Room at the Bank, Mall, Track . . . : Religion: Churches and synagogues are using creative ways to meet congregants' spiritual needs. Vacant properties--from banks to bowling alleys--are being converted into places of worship.


For the past five years, Rabbi Daniel Epstein's congregation has moved from hotel banquet rooms to storefronts in search of a place to worship. One night, during services at a store that had no electricity, synagogue members had to borrow candles from an Italian restaurant next door.

Ever searching for a house of worship, the synagogue's 150 families now hold Sabbath services in a second-floor social room at the Irvine Bowl, a bowling alley. While the unorthodox atmosphere lends a certain pioneering spirit to the occasion, the situation is far from ideal.

"We walk past the bowlers in our fancy suits and ties to go upstairs," Epstein said. "Then every so often during services, you hear someone make a strike."

But last month, the prayers of the congregation were answered when Beth Jacob officials purchased a former Bank of California building in Irvine for an undisclosed amount. Already, they say, word of the new site, which they will occupy in September, is proving a boon to membership.

"We've had to put more people on the phones," Epstein said. "This is a base that people can look forward to and it's very exciting."

Across Southern California, skyrocketing land prices are forcing churches and synagogues to come up with creative ways of meeting their spiritual needs. It is a problem facing many religious orders across the Southland: Membership is flourishing, but many cannot afford to build houses of worship to accommodate their increasing numbers.

"It's not just the cost of the land but the cost of development fees and the cost of developing the site," said Tom Butz, business administrator for the Pacific Southwest District Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, based in Irvine. "We were able to make arrangements for one of our churches in Temecula where we would have had to pay zero dollars for the land. But the improvements before we could have even started building would have cost $320,000. For a congregation with 120 members, that's a lot of money."

Unable to build from scratch, some congregations are turning to vacant commercial properties--casualties of the recession--to make ends meet. From San Diego to Ventura counties, they are snatching up vacant bowling alleys, doughnut shops, banks and shopping mall space, converting once-idle structures into houses of God.

"Most cities figure roads and schools into their infrastructures but they don't figure churches," said the Rev. Ken Craft, pastor of Sonrise Christian Fellowship Church in Simi Valley. "Churches are part of our culture but our society has not made room. We're having to be creative and do what we can do."

Last month, Craft's 300-member church took up temporary residence in a Simi Valley K mart shopping center where a gun store and a doughnut shop once stood. Their new neighbors include a pool hall, a liquor store, a gun shop and a Chuck E Cheese's amusement center.

Not everyone is thrilled with the arrangement. The liquor store owner next door complained that the churchgoers might scare away his Sunday customers. For his part, Craft said most church members don't mind being "sandwiched between a Chuck E Cheese's and a gun shop."

As property costs continue to mount, these unusual kinds of arrangements will become more commonplace, said Bob Kichler, a commercial broker in Laguna Niguel who recently engineered the sale of the former bank branch to Epstein's Irvine synagogue.

"Oftentimes, especially in newly developing areas like South Orange County, the congregation or church use is not part of the (development) plans or the demand for use exceeds the number of available sites," Kichler said. "A new city might have two or three sites but may have a half-dozen churches asking for them."

According to church officials, membership has outpaced new church construction, resulting in a severe shortage of available open land. The shortage is most pronounced in suburban communities, which have experienced the most rapid growth.

"These tend to be the Pentecostal churches and independent (nondenominational) churches that have grown very fast and that haven't had the means to keep up with the growth," said Martin Marty, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago. "The demands on the dollar and the limits of what people can give make it hard for people to put up these big cathedrals."

In the past, developers would set aside church sites within their master plans to help attract potential home buyers. But that trend began to change about six years ago when land prices began to take off, experts said.

"Today, the developer is paying so much money for the property, he isn't as excited about giving preferential deals to churches," said John F. Stein, a Huntington Beach broker who handles church property transactions. "In Southern California, people can drive so (developers) figure it's not like people are going to feel as if they have to walk to church."

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