Bricks and mortar are killing some churches–and opening opportunities for others.
Grand old edifices that once stood as prominent, physical religious symbols in their communities may now overwhelm their congregations’ ability to sustain themselves financially.
In the documentary When God Left the Building, a church leader says, “Within a quarter of a mile here there are five huge old churches. And those churches’ main objective–their mission project–is to keep the building standing and heated and all in repair. That’s a lot of money.”
That same church’s financial secretary says, “This church, it’s a beautiful old church. But easily half of the money that we collect every year goes to keep it that way.”
The national weakening real estate picture applies not only to existing, aging buildings. New construction rates have also slumped. Church construction square footage has declined 82 percent since 2002, according to Dodge Data & Analytics.
In addition to the crushing costs of maintaining these buildings, much of the space goes underutilized. Large sanctuaries sometimes enclose a handful of people at 11 a.m. Sunday, and then lie dormant for the next 167 hours, raising questions of stewardship.
UPSIDES OF CHURCH PROPERTY PRESSURE
With all the financial pressures, some churches are finding workable solutions that are actually expanding ministry in their communities. They’re adopting a time-share approach–housing multiple congregations in a shared facility. Sometimes these properties are jointly owned. And sometimes they’re owned by one congregation and leased out to others.
We’ve noticed this trend also growing in other countries that are facing church economic headwinds. In New Zealand, for example, the Christian population no longer makes up the majority. Only 5 to 10 percent of the country’s residents regularly attend church services.
Glenfield Baptist Church, near Auckland, felt the growing burden of sustaining its church’s facilities, so its people implemented a Kingdom-minded practice of sharing. They opened their facilities to a Spanish-speaking congregation on Saturday, a Korean church on Sunday afternoon, an Iraqi congregation on Sunday night, and a Chinese church during the week–in addition to a daily child care operation and other community groups. The various tenants contribute an additional $100,000 to Glenfield’s income per year. The building is a beehive of activity all week long.
Pastor Colin Hopkins said, “We believe churches need to question how they can grow finances by utilizing what they have. And that (for us) is the building.”
Colin’s wife Glenda added, “We believe the church is the people, not the building. So for us it is not a sacred cow mentality.”
That perspective may be the most powerful lesson here. Perhaps the current strain under the weight of brick and mortar will help the church reclaim its true meaning and mission.