GROWING IN GRACE
The longer I serve in a local church, the more I become aware how much our physical spaces – the spaces we use for worship, teaching, fellowship, and service – say a lot about the souls of our congregational life. We may not always pick up on this, especially if we’ve been a member of a church for many years. A place can become home quickly and we grow accustomed to the feelings we gain by being present while missing the details of the space itself. Nonetheless, these spaces become sacred as we share life together in them.
Church buildings have played a big role in the history of American Christianity. Once America was finally settled in the mid to late 1800s, church buildings became the pride of every local church. Without realizing it, we began to shift from a missionary movement (a church always on the move as new land was settled) to a stationed institution with brick and mortar and permanence in a local community. In the 100+ years that followed, buildings became bigger and bigger in order to accommodate more people, growing incomes, and the love and pride that comes with being an active member of a local church.
All of this was going well until somewhere in the mid to late 20th Century when church membership decline became noticeable. Now that we’re in the 21st Century, decline is not only noticeable, it’s painful. And all the while we have these big, aging, beautiful yet hard-to-maintain buildings our faithful mothers and fathers in the faith left behind.
With fewer people occupying our buildings and resources that continue to decline, what’s the faithful thing to do?
Well, we could just double down on our efforts to resurrect the church of the past. We could continue to hope for the good ‘ole days to return and pray that people will once again fill our pews. While we’re at it, we might even pray that Sunday morning become culturally sacred again and that people act as if attending church is the thing any good, upstanding citizen would do with their time.
Or we could prayerfully seek what new place God might be leading us into – even when it might involve our church buildings.
A Modest Proposal
What if we encouraged more churches to give their space away? Yes, you read that correctly. What if God is leading us into a season of downsizing our physical space? And what if such a season will free us to become a church on the move again?
I want to offer three changes that I think could take place if we creatively and strategically downsized or shared our church’s physical spaces:
- A shift in Evangelism. The constant upkeep of buildings means we need to focus our energy on ourselves. And a decline in resources for such upkeep means we need new people in our buildings in order for our buildings to get the attention they need. We don’t mean for it to happen, but our evangelism can quietly become an effort to preserve our physical space if we’re not careful. The focus on buildings also leads us to approach evangelism as a way to encourage people to come to us. We spruce up our buildings, pave our parking lots, and keep our grass in pristine condition so that we can tell a newcomer, “Come on in our doors – the water is fine.” Focusing less on our buildings means evangelism becomes more about going out and meeting people where they are. It means we gain the freedom to actually be the church because we’re not quite as focused on preserving a church building.
- A shift in Stewardship. I’ve never done this but I’d be willing to bet if you conducted a poll in your local church and asked people the least exciting thing their tithes and offerings pay for, the maintenance of a church building might be close to the top of their list. We love to pay for children and youth. We love to pay for choir music. We love to pay for preachers (so long as they visit us when we’re sick and give a good sermon!). But no one likes to pay the light bill. Paying a water bill doesn’t strangely warm anyone’s heart. Downsizing or creatively sharing physical space can free local churches to not stress so much about paying enormous utilities on a building used very little when you consider the number of hours it remains locked during the week.
- A shift in Mission. Too many of our local churches are occupying buildings that are too large and too expensive to maintain. What if, instead of mourning the decline in numbers, churches found creative ways to engage the community with their physical space? What if you took some empty classrooms and invited a community development program to use your space during the week? What if you took an empty office or two and found a startup non-profit trying to help people and you gave them a little office space? What if you took your oversized fellowship hall and let a local AA or NA group meet in it weekly on an evening when the church doesn’t need it? Our physical space and how we use it says a lot about how we view our call to be in mission with the world around us. If we leave our church locked up for most of the week and use our space solely for members to meet, then that says to the community that we are a closed group. It doesn’t matter how many time you want to put on your church sign that “All are welcome here,” the ways you use and let others use your building says, “You better be a member or know the right people if you want to be welcome here.” Opening your big buildings to the community says you care about being a good neighbor.
Andy Stanley asks this question in one of his leadership talks: “What’s the biggest challenge the Church faces, that if it were possible to overcome, it would be a total game-changer?” Stanley says the answer is buildings. We make our buildings too sacred. Change seems impossible when it comes to physical space. Too much emotion gets tied up in buildings. But Stanley also reminds us the kingdom of God is full of bounty – the only problem we face is how that bounty is allocated.
How is God’s kingdom calling you to consider new and creative ways to use your physical space? Is there a ministry in your community that needs a new home? Is there a way to meet some need in your community by giving some space away?
How is God calling us to see our buildings and how we use them as more than just possessions, but rather as gifts we are carefully entrusted to use for the sake of God’s growing kingdom movement?
The Rev. Ben Gosden is the senior pastor at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Savannah. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.