I believe the 21st century will be more like the first century than the 20th. If this is so, then mainstream Christianity’s understanding of property will undergo profound change. What property was to the 20th century, relationships and community will be to the 21st century. That spells trouble for most of the traditional ways of approaching church property.
The use of property isn’t a very sexy issue, nor has it been considered to be important to transformational leadership, at least not until recently. Now, with the rapid changes of today, how congregations use their property is becoming one of the issues that sets the innovative congregation apart.
This article addresses at least five property issues that I think will cover most of the discussions on property. You may add more if these do not cover your needs. But you must keep to property issues. Since the issues addressed vary so much, I encourage you to use the words in parentheses when posting so people will know whether the post is important to them.
- Space as a metaphor. What your space looks like says something about who you are. (Metaphor)
- Options for congregations stuck with already designed space. (Stuck)
- Options for congregations attempting to expand. (Expand)
- Innovative ways to do ministry without buying buildings. (Innovative)
- Foundational nuts and bolts. (Foundation)
There was a day when the “field of dreams” mindset worked. Erect a new building, and people would come no matter what went on inside. It was the thing to do back then. Today, additional parking lots or new facilities seldom cause a congregation to grow; however, the lack of parking or space can hinder the growth of a congregation.
On the other hand, if something worthwhile is going on inside the congregation before the space addition, people do tend to flock to new facilities. For example, check out Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY. Its attendance jumped from 9,000 to 13,000 the Sunday they moved into their new 95 million dollar plant.
In the same way, if a congregation is alive and feeding its people and it runs out of room, the lack of facilities can stifle the growth. So facilities can make a difference even if they aren’t sexy.
Space as Metaphor
The space in which we worship betrays our understanding of the world around us. Consider the following examples. To build today in the Western world without taking into account the importance of visuals and sound in worship is like building our faith upon the sand. Yet many congregations are still building space without taking into account the new technology. As such, they betray their lack of understanding of the times.
To choose to worship in a storefront or a bar may not just mean a lack of money. It could mean that the worshiping group wants to reach a group of people who are turned off by the traditional religious setting. To choose to use art extensively throughout a facility could be an attempt to acknowledge the growing place art plays in the postmodern world.
Options for Congregations Stuck with Already Designed Space
Many congregations are saddled with the following situation. The congregation has been declining for thirty years. The average attendance is under 150 and the average age of those attending is approaching 60. The church sits on two acres of land. The facilities include a sanctuary, education building, offices, and a small fellowship hall. The hallways are narrow and dark. The sanctuary is on a different level from the education building which means more than one set of stairs throughout the facilities and there aren’t any ramps or elevator. The area around the church has turned over at least once in the past 30 years and the schools are full. The white population is declining. What are some of the property options for this congregation?
- Continue to do nothing and die.
- Remodel and die.
- Add ramps and an elevator.
- Develop a new direction of ministry while at the same time making the building accessible to all ages.
- Begin a satellite ministry several blocks from the present location aimed at reaching a younger generation and that will perhaps be less white.
- Begin a new congregation in the area and prepare for the closing of the mother church.
- Invite into the facilities a church planter more indigenous to the changing neighborhood.
- Sell the property to an indigenous ministry and move out.
- Which of the above is the absolute worst option?
- What other options do you see?
Options for Congregations Wanting to Expand
The typical case I see is one in which an old established church, often started in the 1960s, begins to grow because of the efforts of a new, energetic, outgoing, transformational pastor. Usually the church has less than five acres and has reached the point where it is out of room for both parking and worship space. The sanctuary plans show it can seat about 300 people at 20 inches per person and has 100 parking spaces. There is a sanctuary, educational space, offices, and a fellowship hall/gymnasium that will seat comfortably 350 people. The church worships at 8:30 with 75 people and 11:00 with 250 people. When the 11:00 service begins there isn’t room for a family of four to find seats together except on the first row of pews. All of the educational space is used to 100% capacity on an average Sunday. The buildings are spread out with lots of green space and trees in between. The church sits on a major six-lane highway where over 100,000 cars pass each day. The pastor is in her fifth year and there is minimum to mild conflict developing among the long-term older leaders. What are the options for this congregation?
- Do nothing and stagnate.
- Build a larger sanctuary on the present grassy areas.
- Sell the property and relocate.
- Buy any adjacent land at any price.
- Buy any adjacent land only if the price is right.
- Begin a third worship service during the Sunday School hour.
- Stay where they are, purchase property in another section of the city, begin a satellite ministry, and become a church in two locations with the option of relocating in ten or more years.
- Send away 100 to 150 people to plant a new congregation in the area and begin rebuilding the mother congregation.
- Begin a third worship service during the Sunday School hour and do one or more of the following: develop one, two, and three hour parking lots; hire an off-duty police person to facilitate in and out traffic; develop a parking lot team of servants to help people find parking; shuttle the key leaders to and from a nearby parking lot that goes unused on Sunday mornings; cut down the trees and pave over the grassy areas.
- Tear down two of the buildings and rebuild by going higher which frees up more space for parking.
- A combination of 6 and 8
- A combination of 6 and 10.
- Which of the above are terrible options?
- What’s the problem with number 5?
- When is the only time number 3 makes any real sense?
- What’s wrong with the architect’s version of the seating capacity?
- What other options do you see?
Innovative Ways to Do Ministry without Buying Buildings
More and more ministry is being attempted now without purchasing buildings. The two most successful ministries I know of like this are Saddleback and New Hope Christian Fellowship.
Saddleback had over fifty rented locations and more than 5,000 in attendance before it purchased its present property. New Hope Christian Fellowship grew to more than 7,000 in five years in a rented school auditorium. The only property they own is for a Ministry Center that they use during the week for training and offices.
An interesting experiment in planting a congregation with an outright disdain for property is The Cell in Atlanta, GA. They are making an attempt at never being landed gentry or taking down any trees in order to pave a parking lot. The Cell utilizes homes, bars, restaurants, and even a tattoo parlor. Perhaps, instead of having an inanimate object present an image to the community (i.e. a building, playground, etc.), looking to people to represent the community of faith is more feasible.
Their metaphor might be tribe. The tribe has many groupings that make it up, but comes together to celebrate and share what God is doing in the life of each group. The image of the house church of Acts is always at the front of my mind. People are never more comfortable asking questions and talking about life than when they are in their home or the home of a friend surrounded by a small group of people that share similar concerns.
The Cell has various cell groups that meet in a variety of places. These are groups that gather weekly to engage and apply biblical faith to their lives. They encompass nonbelievers and hard core believers. These groups are committed to coming together for a celebration time where we eat, laugh, socialize, worship, baptize, take communion, and launch new leaders into their “communities” as cell group leaders. They want to be known for what happens in the homes, bars, restaurants, and tattoo parlors where they have seen us gathering together pieces of that tribe to share life. It’s too early a plant to say much other than it is very unique, radical, and passionate. I like what I see and read.
Here are some of the options I am seeing:
- Use someone else’s space and rent.
- House churches are growing.
- Cell churches.
- Small group churches.
- Congregations in bars.
- Storefront churches.
- Café churches.
What other options have you seen?
Foundational Nuts and Bolts
- Educational space never pays for itself. If you need both educational and worship space, make worship space your priority.
- Mergers never work unless all present property is sold, new property purchased and a new name is found that is not just the old names hyphenated or otherwise mixed.
- People need at least 24 inches of seat space.
- You can only use 80% of anything on an average day.
- You can usually raise 25-40% more for construction if you hire someone from the outside to do your capital fund drive.
- Avoid a debt of more than 28% of your budget or an amount more than twice your budget.
- You need one off-street parking space for every two people on the property at the peak hour.
- It is hard to raise money to pay off an existing debt.
- You’ll need about an acre for every 100 people in worship today.
- Organized congregations can have as little as ten minutes in between worship services if they have adequate parking and flow in and out of the worship area.
Question: Do you have any advice for churches facing property-related dilemmas? Share your tips in the Comments section below.
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