First ask: ‘What is our mission?’
May 26, 2018
As congregations change and traditional church buildings age, the question of what to do about buildings and property becomes paramount. Older congregations wonder if they should continue allowing the building to provide a sanctuary for the members who had sustained it. And new church development leaders must decide whether to commit to bricks and mortar or continue renting space even though the weekly setup and cleanup can siphon off energy that could be used in other ways.
There is no single right answer when it comes to making building choices. The best property for a congregation is one that helps them follow God’s call.
Dr. Paul K. Hooker, associate dean for ministerial formation and advanced studies at Austin Theological Seminary, says that the first question to ask when thinking about buildings and property is “What is our mission?” The follow-up question is “How can our property help or hinder us with that mission?”
“The mission of Christ is different from one place to another; so also is the need for, use of and value of buildings and property. Over time, a community of God’s people may well come to differing conclusions about the spaces in which it lives and works,” Hooker said. “What any community must bear in mind is that a building or other property is almost always a gift from the community’s past and a bequest to its future. What to do about buildings and properties is almost always best done if we understand ourselves as stewards on behalf of both the community and Christ, rather than as owners.”
The theology of space is influenced by culture as well. For many older adults, physical space is important. Jobs were done at specific desks in offices, hymns were printed in books, and post-World War II mortgage incentives meant houses and churches were desired symbols of security and prosperity.
However, place and property are different in millennials’ lives. They have come of age in a world where jobs are done on computers from home or a coffee shop, hymns are stored digitally then projected, and home ownership numbers are dropping as the number of houses being rented is increasing. Having church without owning a building makes sense if Bibles are on phones and hymns can be shown on a blank wall.
New congregations today often begin without their own building. They nest in an existing church, travel from home to home or rent space for worship. The Open Door in Pittsburgh has never owned its own church building in more than 12 years of ministry. It began in the basement of an established church and has since worshiped in three spaces.
The Rev. John Creasy says this has helped the congregation realize that following Jesus is about being a good community partner as well as engaging in faithful worship. A traditional building does not have to be part of that.
“It’s ridiculous to think we need to pay for a big building that we sit in once a week for an hour or two,” he said. “We should make sure the building is vital, being used throughout the week. Some churches have enough programs to do that in and of themselves. But for those who don’t, partnership can connect the congregation to the community. Not to share our buildings is selfish and sinful.”
While the congregation doesn’t own a church, it does own a building and property — a greenhouse and three acres of land used for Garfield Community Farm.
“One of the things that drove us to start the farm was the recognition of the abandoned land and the abandoned people in the neighborhood. The buildings were unoccupied or torn down,” Creasy said. “Yet, when I think of sacred space, I think of something beautiful where I can encounter God. That’s not what we had at the beginning of the farm. But it has been transformed because of the thousands of pounds of compost and the participation of people in the community.”
The farm has been a hands-on lesson in experiencing God’s restoration, a lesson that might have been missed if the congregation had invested in a traditional building.
Sue Washburn, Pastor of Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania
Today’s Focus: How to Use Church Property
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Loving and liberating Jesus, grant us the humility to recognize you in others and to receive the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given to communities and churches of whom we know very little. May all of our encounters give witness to your transformative and liberating power. Amen.