“In a decade, America is going to have a whole different look, as far as what is a church and where is a church. And what about all these empty buildings?” asks American Church Magazine publisher Steve Hewitt in the documentary When God Left the Building.
Verlon Fosner watched his church, Westminster Community Church in Seattle, dwindle to the point that its spacious building no longer fit the shrinking congregation. “The level of desperation was pretty high,” Fosner said. The congregation faced a tough decision.
Shifting and declining churchgoing habits are causing an unprecedented shake-up in the religious real estate scene. Take a look at the headlines:
“Banks Foreclosing on America’s Churches in Record Numbers” (Reuters). “The surge in church foreclosures represents a new wave of distressed property seizures.”
“Churches: The New Risky Bet” (Christianity Today). “Hundreds of congregations have filed for bankruptcy or defaulted on loans.”
“Churches Find End is Nigh” (The Wall Street Journal). “The past few years have seen a rapid acceleration in the number of churches losing their sanctuaries because they can’t pay the mortgage.”
“Decline in Church-Building Reflects Changed Tastes and Times” (The Wall Street Journal). “Construction of religious buildings in the U.S. has fallen to the lowest level at any time since private records began in 1967.”
Even still-growing megachurches are shifting away from building massive edifices. There are exceptions, of course, such as Kansas City’s Church of the Resurrection, which is in the midst of a $90 million construction project.
But, as most congregations shrink and donations dwindle, church members and leaders find it increasingly difficult to justify–or afford–the expense of a cavernous auditorium space that gets used once or twice a week.
So, what does the future hold for America’s aging inventory of church buildings? For many congregations, this question raises some other, bigger, questions about ministry and mission. Beyond that beautiful building on the corner, how is God calling his church? What constitutes truly worthy stewardship of a congregation’s tithes and offerings?
A NEW REALITY
While American culture has often identified a church with its real estate, that may be changing. A few trends are emerging:
1. Make space more flexible. Fixed seating is giving way to movable chairs, allowing the sanctuary space to serve multiple uses throughout the week–for the congregation as well as other community groups.
2. Share buildings. Using creative and cooperative scheduling, multiple congregations can share the same real estate. The Mormons figured this out long ago.
3. Unfasten the weekly gathering. Some congregations follow a modified house-church model, where small groupings meet weekly or bi-weekly in homes or other places. Then all these mini-congregations come together once a month, in a rented public space, for a city-wide worship gathering.
4. Get out and go to the people. Some congregations have turned their real estate woes into opportunities to become truly missional. They’ve sold or leased out their church buildings and taken their ministry to the streets and neighborhoods around them.
That’s just what the people of Seattle’s Westminster Community Church did. When attendance continued to drop by 15 percent a year, the congregation decided to vacate their beautiful building. They rented out that space to local non-profit groups. And they’re using the rental income to fund their ministry dream–Community Dinners.
Verlon Fosner and his Westminster members now go out, five nights week, to various Seattle neighborhoods and provide dinner and ministry for area residents. I recently visited one of these sites, at a local community meeting hall. Westminster volunteers welcomed the neighbors with a tasty meal, nice tablecloths, live music, and a visual artist creating a painting. As the locals began enjoying their dessert, that location’s young pastor offered a simple 10-minute gospel message.
In Westminster’s former brick-and-mortar configuration, weekly attendance had dropped to 225. Now, its Community Dinners reach 900 people per week.
(Verlon Fosner will be among the resource people at the Future of the Church Summit in Colorado, October 21-23, 2015.)
Sounds like some real connections might finally be made! 🙂
The cost of paying for church buildings and administrative overhead is so high in most congregations as to render the church incapable of ministering effectively outside their walls. This americanized brand of Christianity that promotes the idea of professional pastors, that want to be seen by the church as CEO`s and by the IRS as priests, has crippled the church financially. Look at the adminstration costs of most non profit social organizations versus the average american church and I dont see how anyone can justify giving to the church. The Bible says pastors should live “of” the Gospel, not “off” the Gospel. We should be spending our efforts building people, not buildings and cushy salaries.
In the church I’m involved with we adapted the main worship space and now its used during the week for a toddler group and a community cafe, and we’re looking to find more ways to use it. Out hall space is used by community groups and we have the local police station in the upstairs office. Its a headache organising it all, but its a good headache!
There are many uses for the old buildings as I’ve seen dotting the landscape when I grew up.
Back in my parents younger years in the 1940’s the era of church/school buildings every 4 miles was just coming to an end where kids could walk before buses existed. When buses came and schools came together in local towns those old school/churches were turned into houses or just abandoned.
Now days the buildings are bigger so I don’t think people would buy them for a home. The large buildings could be made into charter schools or community centers. If area denominations are not in huge dislike of each other, they could share the space and have services in the same space at different times. (I can see the fights for prime 10 am time)
There is a nice former church building in my community being used as offices for a couple businesses.
With the internet and all the social media, I can see it hard to get people out of their homes to go anywhere but work the grocery store.
reposted on baldvicar, thanks for this really interesting post
[…] this from a blog I follow, ‘Holy Soup’. The original post can be found here. Clearly this is written from an American church perspective, but there’s lots to challenge […]
I am lucky to attend a church filled through the week with community functions, non-profit group meetings, a weekly no charge full dinner/lunch, an ethnic congregation and active community outreach (food bank, meals on wheels etc.) concerts, monthly movie night and a waiting list for people wanting to use the building for various meetings. The only church I’ve ever attended that has a posted list at the entry regarding who his meeting where. The congregation is shrinking but the community aspect goes on. Years ago I attended an historic church seating 500+ which is now down to 30 in attendance and a huge gothic building they just spent $100,000 repairing the steeple, a addition willed donation to refurbish the empty pews, $10,000 donation to repair a weather vane. It is mostly empty through the week, costs a fortune to heat, insure and maintain. The older members (with money) are dying off and yet they still open on Sunday. Hmmm.
Applause. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve run into church leaders with a “vision” to build and build big to “give God a presence in (fill in the name of the town).” Or to rally a congregation around a project that will somehow bring unity.
The problem with the first notion about a building giving God a presence is…well, actually there are too many to detail. I don’t know where to start but it ends up here: God doesn’t need brick and mortar to make himself known and if our only participation is buying unsecured bonds and hiring a general contractor…
The issue with the second notion is that nothing causes division quite like going into huge debt to create a building. And picking curtain and carpet colors. And deciding whose brother-in-law is going to get the parking lot striping contract.
Before the next Building Campaign erects its “This Far To Go!” Thermometer in front of some congregation may we please, please, please camp out on this question: “How will this project enhance or constrain our ability to do the ministry God has called us to do?” I’m sure there are congregations that could honestly say having a building will be a faithful use of funds. But not all of them.
JoAnna commented on Facebook: “My dad was a denominational employee in Iowa and then in Indiana in the 70’s and 80’s. We would often visit a different congregation every weekend and experienced many different types of architecture, from very simple old Quaker meetinghouses to stained glass mini cathedrals that look like the one in your picture to modern contemporary, yet smaller scale edifices also in the mix. The impression left by these spaces, as much as the culture of the people that inhabited them have shaped my spiritual context in a manner that my children have never – and likely never will -experienced. I am simultaneously glad that the Body is defined by more than a location, but find myself grieving the passing of an era.”
I guess God has his ways of getting rid of the dross.
We are now calling our building The Resource Center. It is a place that provides resources and training to a region of house churches. Our goal is to assist in planting 120 or more house churches in the region.
We rent a space at a seniors center, the rent we pay helps the seniors with their programs.