The Skeletons of Faith

When people no longer see worship as a vital aspect of their life of faith, particularly the Christian faith, what do you do with the bones of previous generations who did see worship as integral, and invested their time and money in an infrastructure to  support it?  What do you do with the skeletons of faith, the church buildings no longer needed, wanted, or able to be supported?

It’s a serious question, one that is growing in relevance in America as it reaches epic proportions in Europe, where the skeletons have historic value and interest even if  their use to support the Christian faith has expired.

When congregations can’t keep their property any more, what becomes of it?  Some of the ideas are rather imaginative, as this collection of photos demonstrates.  Amazing that 9-10 of the places mentioned here – nearly a third of the places featured – are former churches.  Other ideas are less imaginative, as selling property to developers is often an attractive option to a congregation in order to provide legacy funding to a spin-off ministry or other related organizations in the area.  Cities are recognizing this as a potential challenge when real estate zoned for churches is no longer needed for churches.

Ironic that people who don’t care about churches or congregations do care when it comes to real estate.  And also interesting people presume congregations selling off their property have some sort of moral obligation to the community to repurpose their property as low-income housing.  The very title of the article is fascinating, implying that churches are somehow sinning by selling off their property.

Ironic, in light of our Lord, who said Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. (Matthew 8:20)

On the flip side, the attractiveness of partnering with a developer to provide a much-needed cash infusion to sustain a dying congregation can indeed be a dangerous path.  The article quotes a development company president as saying “There are so many churches that say they have 500 people but only 35 show up on Sunday.  We can put them in a position where they can flourish for years to come.”  I suppose if you define flourish as you can stay in your building with declining membership for years to come, this is true.  Money is not the solution to the problem many congregations face.  Creativity is.  Unless a congregation is willing to dedicate the money it receives from redevelopment into new ministries, they’re only going to be successful in staying comfortable, not flourishing.  And the scary reality is, even if they’re willing to be creative, there’s no guarantee they’ll become the next big mega-church.  Statistically speaking, the odds are very much against them.

Another interesting note in the article quoted above is the statistic of more churches being founded in New York City.  How many of those can sustain a piece of property is a more specific and applicable question, and how does this increase fit in with what seems to me to be a surge in non-profit formations?  In other words, there can be more churches and fewer people.  I’m sure it’s not difficult to declare yourself a church, but is this equivalent to obtaining legal recognition of this via 501c3 status, for example?  The article seems to point towards this reality, noting that many of  the new congregations are store-front startups and small mosques.

The end of the article highlights a congregation that decided to allow redevelopment on their campus to provide affordable housing to their neighborhood, as a means of serving their neighborhood.  I question this approach, personally, while acknowledging it may make sense with the proper planning and precautions in place.  The Church is not a real-estate investment organization, nor is it a housing organization.  The Church is the Body of Christ, and needs to maintain this identity and function first and foremost.  People are always willing to take a good deal on rent or food or whatever else they want or need, but this is not the same thing as the Gospel.  There are a host of non-profits and city organizations and departments to help people with their human needs.  And while the Church can provide valuable ministry in this way also, it should never be separated from the Gospel.  If you provide a stranger with an inexpensive apartment but never build a relationship with that person where the Gospel can be shared, ultimately you have failed in your calling as the Church.  You have done what other groups and organizations might have been able to do, and failed to do what only the Church does.

The shake-out of declining worship attendance in our country is far from over.  And while many congregants lament it and look back fondly on prior decades where congregations were thriving, this alone isn’t going to change the cultural  relationship with congregations.  I pray there will be a return of the pendulum to a time of better faithfulness -and understanding – of Christian faith and practice in our larger culture, but it’s going to be a long time in coming.  In the meantime, it would behoove congregations to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

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