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“Boy,  what a ride!”.  So said Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space, in May 1961.  The same could also be said for our twenty year “ride” at the King’s Centre – it’s certainly been thrilling, exhilarating, fulfilling and a bit scary at times!

It was June 1997 that Norwich Community Church, as we were then called, bought the former Lads’ Club in King St.  The church at that time was growing rapidly and hiring St Andrew’s Hall for its Sunday meetings – not ideal, especially the week after the annual beer festival!  Various prophetic words indicated that there was a permanent building for us in central Norwich, so the Elders at the time – Goff Hope and Graham Hall – started to look around.  The old church opposite us (St Peter Parmentergate) did not seem suitable, but they realised that the old Lads’ Club was up for sale.  The building was huge and would require substantial renovation.  It all seemed to be way beyond us but Goff and Graham had struck up a real rapport with the Lads’ Club manager and felt that God was in this.  They arranged for the building to be opened up one Sunday afternoon so that the church family could have a look round.  

After a time of worship there was a resounding feeling that God was indeed in this.  All we needed was to be able to raise what seemed to be a vast amount of money (£125,000) in a very short period of time.  After six weeks of gift days an amazing £105,000 was raised and a mortgage to make up the shortfall (and buy some essentials like chairs!) secured.  On the day of the sale, the Lads’ Club manager had two bids on his desk, one from us and another higher bid from a property developer.  He decided to accept our lower bid as he believed that we would care more for the neighbourhood.  Isn’t that amazing provision from God? 

And then the fun began!  The building was not the nice, clean, warm place it is now.  The modern frontage, containing the coffee bar and the rooms above it, did not exist.  Instead, there was a motley collection of buildings fronting what we now call the main auditorium. This was a cold concrete box, with a shiny concrete floor painted with badminton and 5-a-side court markings and glossy painted walls adorned with hand-painted pictures of local boxing legends.  It was freezing in the winter with the only source of heat coming from a single grill on the back wall.  The hot air system was so loud that it was impossible to hear the “preach” with it on, so the routine was to crank the heating up during the worship and then turn it off for the “preach” during which it gradually got colder and colder!  Ethel Edwards (one of our elderly members at that time) always brought a cushion – not to sit on, but to put under her feet to keep them from freezing on the cold concrete floor!  Instead of the professional kitchen we now have, the only cooking facility in the building was a domestic 4-ring cooker.  It was amazing, though, what Chris Bottomley and the catering team were able to achieve with such limited equipment!

The estimate to renovate the building to what we now see was £650,000 – an astronomical amount for us!  However, the whole area was being regenerated at that time with lots of grants being made available for community projects.  At that time, King Street was the city’s red light district and we really felt that God had strategically placed us in an area that needed God’s light and love.  Without those grants, we would never have been able to renovate the building and engage with the local community.  We still had a huge mortgage for a number of years which, thankfully, was paid off a few years ago. There was also one period when the debt seemed overwhelming.  Just at the right time, another New Frontiers church offered us a long-term, no-interest loan which we paid back in full once we got through the sticky patch.  God’s overwhelming generosity to us is now firmly embedded in our DNA at King’s – we have been given much, so we try to be generous to others.  

The renovation was tackled in three phases :

Phase 1 : renovation of the main auditorium and community lounge was started in January 1999 and was completed in June 1999.  While the renovation of the main auditorium was under way, the congregation met downstairs in the basement.  At that time, the basement was a cold, dark, claustrophobic concrete box littered with the remains of boxing rings and punch bags.  In order to keep warm we hired warm-air blowers which looked like jet engines.  I think we were probably lucky to survive – we realised afterwards that carbon monoxide poisoning had been a very real possibility!  God is good!  Despite the primitive conditions, it was a formative time for the church – we seemed to emerge from the “depths” into the newly refurbished main auditorium all the stronger for it.

Phase 2 : renovation of the basement and demolition of the old frontage started in June 1999 and was completed in March 2000. Recognising the difficulties of running the children’s work in the facilities in St Andrew’s Hall, the Elders kindly agreed that the basement would be primarily used for the children.  One of the first rooms tackled was what was then known as the “C Zone” which was brightly painted with murals by volunteers and some of the children.  Those paintings still exist and that room is still used for the crèche on Sundays and for the mid-week Mums and Toddlers’ groups.

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Phase 3 : construction of the new frontage, including the coffee shop and upstairs conference rooms and offices, was started in early 2001, following a long delay for an archaeological investigation to be undertaken (King Street is reputed to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in the UK).  Fortunately, the archaeologists did not find anything of great interest so construction work was able to commence and the work was completed in early 2002.  

So, it has been quite a journey!  We are constantly amazed how God directed us to a building in just the right part of the city at a time when government money was available for community projects.  Just like Alan Shepard, experiencing the thrill and the turbulence of his flight atop that Mercury rocket all those years ago, it’s been a privilege to be part what God has been doing in and through the King’s Centre for the last twenty years!  Boy, what a ride!!!