When the building is bigger than the Church

Our church is going through a budget preparation and planning process. It looks like we are in for budget reductions in order to keep expenses more in line with contributions. We have generous people and will do our best to move forward in the best way possible. Many churches and non-profit organizations are having to make difficult decisions in response to financial limitations. However, there are some that are literally unable to keep their lights on. Here is an article about such a situation.

I can definitely sympathize with a church that can’t keep their lights on, but the unfortunate reality also raises an important question about what to do in a building that dwarfs the size of the congregaton. It sounds like there are about 50 members “hanging on” in a facility that probably was once needed to accomodate its crowds decades ago. It’s a sad situation for sure, but one that is played out repeatedly in churches around our nation.

Another similar example relates to Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville. This congregation once had attendance in the thousands, but public disputes with former pastors and church members took a toll and they are now looking to sell their facility. Rather than remain in this building, the congregation is looking to relocate to more affordable and usable space.

Scenarios like this are played out time and time again, and images of dwindling congregations in buildings that of course remain the same in size are hard to accept. So many times the members are so attached to the building that selling it and relocating is unthinkable. There are memories, people, and events associated with the church building. It’s hard to consider going to another place where you aren’t able to see where your children were baptized, married, or where significant events took place. It’s a classic example of when the church is more identified with the building than with the people who gather there.

It’s a sad reality but there are times when pastors are held hostage by the building. Fewer people filling the pews means less money in the offering plates, and those bills still have to be paid. Buildings need constant maintenance, repair, and renovation (if you want the facility to look remotely like something from the late 20th century). This can put a strain on budgets and create problems when there isn’t enough money to put toward other ministries. The aging of the church is a big factor relating to this development, and in fact the “mainline churches” are being renamed “grayline churches.”

Traditional churches who fall in this category still have ministry to perform, but might need to evaluate whether they are using their space effectively. Churches like the one who can’t keep their lights on might need to be liberated from having to spend so much of their limited resources in this manner. Creative churches are looking to make their space available to outside organizations as a service to their communities. This will not result in higher attendance, but it can be ministry.

I suspect we will see more and more congregations experiencing this kind of pain over the next few decades. What might result, however, is that more and more churches will have the courage to face the reality of their situations and respond appropriately. One benefit of this development will be that churches will have to revisit what it means to be the body of Christ, and this can be done in any number of ways as long as community is experienced.

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One thought on “When the building is bigger than the Church

  1. Good thoughts to think about, Danny. In my years working at a well-known New Orleans church, I saw and heard the quarrels and battles of long-time building ownership and location. Many ‘old-timers’ did not want to move from the location and leave the building. Since they sold and moved locations, the church is big and strong (as big and strong as a large church can be).
    I wonder sometimes why churches continue to want to be big in numbers. Why not place more emphasis and monetary resources in being the church? Go out and do missions locally. Not missions projects and trips but actual missions work: feeding the homeless, providing for needs of others who need it, helping others get back on the right track in life with job skills, etc.

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