“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.)