This week’s post is written by the Rev. Dr. Patrick G. Duggan, Executive Director of the United Church of Christ Church Building & Loan Fund. Since 1995, Rev. Dr. Duggan has also served as senior pastor of the Congregational Church of South Hempstead in South Hempstead, New York.
The church is not a building. Churches don’t need buildings. The problem with churches is that they are locked in their buildings. Ministry must get beyond the four walls. The church has left the building.
To say that ‘churches don’t need buildings’ ignores the reality that people need places to live, work, play and gather. Church leaders, your building is not a cause of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of your ministry. And even if your building is crumbling around you, if your way forward is to focus exclusively on rebuilding, you will not revive the life of your church.
COVID-19 has exposed our wrong relationships with church buildings because many congregations have found new vitality through live stream worship and online giving. However, it is foolhardy to ignore the critical role of church real estate in any post-COVID-19 vision of the church. Here are five reasons why:
- Church Buildings are God’s Property.
Churches are nonprofit organizations (which means they are not owned by an individual or other organization). Biblical theology is clear on the fact that everything belongs to God (Psalm 24:1) and is provided by God for humanity to manage (or as we King James English-addicted folks prefer, “steward”).
- Buildings are the Largest and Most Widely Held Church Assets.
For many congregations, the most valuable asset owned by the church is the building and other property. There are churches that have little or no financial reserves but own buildings worth hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars.
- Every congregation needs a building.
There is no climate on the planet that does not include precipitation, extreme temperatures, or other conditions that require human beings to seek shelter. Even with outdoor worship, street corner evangelism, feeding ministry, prison ministry, chaplaincy, and other community ministry activities, every congregation needs worship space, meeting space, classroom space, conference space, office space, kitchen and bathroom facilities, storage space and space for other indoor activities. Ministry ought to drive the congregation out of ‘the four walls’, but at some point in the course of weekly ministry activities, you need a place to meet.
And at some point in its organizational life, a church needs a space it controls; somewhere that certain values and behaviors are held to be sacred; a place where refugees can have safe harbor, or where youth can gather late in the evening and be safe. This is the essence of “sanctuary”.
- We must fix our self-concept by NOT calling both the building and the people “church”.
Our skewed relationships with church buildings are a significant source of ministry & missional Ineffectiveness. The building is not the problem. Buildings do not praise God, take a stand against racism, or believe in marriage equality. No building has ever led a church fight or preached a bad sermon.
People remember the marriages, funerals, baptisms, and chicken dinners. People want the organ to be where it has always been no matter how long it has been since anybody played the organ. People make decisions to fire the youth minister and use that money in the budget to purchase a new piano. People choose to neglect replacing the roof after it has served for 35 years even though it only has a 30-year warranty. People decide to stay in a building long after the congregation has dwindled to less than 20 members because it is too painful to transition in some way.
You do not “go to church” or meet “at the church”. Followers of Christ ARE the church.
- Repurposing church properties to advance mission is a proven strategy.
When CB&LF begins to work with a congregation the initial conversation is all about mission, vision, leadership, and capacity. We talk about the community where the congregation is located; the ways that the church interacts, supports, and works with their neighbors. We learn about the unique personality of the congregation, its talents and idiosyncrasies, and the congregation’s unique offerings that distinguish it from other churches.
Many congregations do not see this assessment as necessary and just want to get to their most pressing building or property issues. “What does any of that stuff have to do with my leaky roof?” they ask.
Your leaky roof comes from years of neglecting the building. Your neglect of the building comes from the fact that: 1) Worship, Sunday school, and prayer meeting/bible study are the only missional activities you do in the building, 2) giving at worship (before COVID-19) makes up almost 100% of the church’s revenue, and 3) your single revenue stream and scarcity of missional activity results in insufficient social and financial capital to maintain, leverage and enhance your primary and most valuable asset. Ever heard the saying “no money, no mission”? (For a more Christ-like way of framing this dilemma, please read Jesus’ parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30.)
The best thing to happen to the church in this coronavirus season is that many church leaders have awakened to the resilience of Christians forced to do ministry without having access to their buildings. Social distancing forced us to pivot quickly to new ways of gathering; to be innovative and technology-driven in our ministries; to find ways to strengthen our connections within and among congregations.
So the next time someone tells you that the post-COVID church needs to abandon its buildings, politely wait for them to finish pontificating, and then quietly ask them, “How does getting out of our building make us better stewards of what God has placed into our care?” And secondly ask them “How does getting out of our building change us from a 1-1/2 day-a-week church to a mission-driven, vibrant 7-day-a-week ministry?”
Or you can just send them this blog post.