Faith Works 4-1-17
A modest proposal for churches to consider
It's time for congregations to get out of the property and real estate business.
Our buildings eat up a fair amount of most faith community budgets, and the paid staff we have, the other largest chunk of how we use our members' contributions, spend significant amounts of time dealing with issues around the use, maintenance, and expansion of our physical plants.
Whether a small country chapel by a cemetery, or a mega-ish campus with multiple buildings on the property surrounded by parking prairies, let's just all agree to stop. Let it go. Let those hunks of real estate roam free.
They'll go back, in many cases, onto the property tax rolls as businesses and other everyday uses occupy the square footage, or be torn down for additional strip malls and big box retailers, bulldozed for new residential options.
Some older church buildings in our area have been repurposed and remodeled for residential use, and a few in the Columbus area have become clubs and restaurants and other businesses. A bank's office operations are in an old church structure in downtown Newark, and it was a muffler shop before that, so there's precedent.
Yes, let's see all our Christian churches of pretty much any stripe or sort sell off their buildings, and use the proceeds for ministry. This is a refrain that many younger advisers to church life in the US are starting to say, especially to older congregations with antique buildings, of which our area has quite a few. The counsel is to cash out, and put that money to use in "creative ministries" and not "just spend it on ourselves" but use the donations of church members more flexibly, with outreach a higher priority.
Of course, there's a catch. Or two. Or three. One is that we can't all do this at once. The real estate market for distinguished older edifices couldn't absorb so many properties all together, without the prices for them plummeting below what you can currently get for a retired church building. So we're going to have to figure out: who goes first? You? Me?
Then there's the whole concept of weekly Sunday worship (or Saturday for some of you, Friday for a few, to think more broadly across faith traditions, but we're thinking all religious bodies should join in with this move). Some new church plants start in middle school auditoriums, which aren't getting used on Sundays mostly anyhow, so it's a revenue source for school districts with minimal cost.
If we all get out of our buildings, there's probably not enough rent-able spaces around for all of us to go into. We might see more merges and combined congregations if we all shed structural investments, but in general, this move would swamp the meeting halls and gathering spaces on weekends. Then you'd see rents going up for such use, as it becomes more of a sellers' market than a buyers' advantage.
And sooner or later, someone is going to sit down and do the math, and say "you know, for what we pay each year for this space, we could put up a decent building." So folks would get together and say "for that matter, we'd really like it if we could set up the raised platform this way, and seat the people here, as opposed to what we're stuck with." Then some others would say "if we're creating a dedicated space for worship, we should honor our God by making it beautiful, with decoration that spurs good thoughts, divine aspirations." Some will call for simple lines, others a more ornate elegance, but those buildings will develop and elaborate over time as people try to express their faith through architecture.
So how long would it take, even if every church property was sold or liquidated or divested to the private market tomorrow, for faith communities to build again what would simply be another generation of church buildings? I'd guess about a generation, tops.
Maybe it's not such a good idea after all. Perhaps church buildings are ministry tools we need to look at for what they are, how we use them in worship and for service, and be willing to change where we must, honor what we should of the past, and be flexible in new construction down the road. We can do building audits occasionally to make sure our buildings serve us, and the church doesn't serve the building.
Never mind. And Happy First of April!
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's glad his congregation has a lovely, useful building. Tell him about your sense of church buildings at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.