I have been asked on numerous occasions why many churches with a more evangelical emphasis were growing and what are the key factors in church growth. These questions were asked of me as I served large steeple, large building churches...buildings that had high maintenance and upkeep costs. My answer to the growth questions - particularly in relationship to new, fast growing churches - included the following elements.
· Begin by identifying a community / geographic area which has the potential for growth.
· Create a church culture that is attractive to the socio-economic demographics of that community.
· Avoid creating building and property costs as long as possible - rent the local high school gym or an underutilized building. If you build, start small. Use the financial giving to hire staff that can be in the community and create programs that will attract the target audience.
· Build a spiritual presence that proclaims accessibility and joy.
· Consider building expansion only when the growth calls for it.
Now that is a fine formula for a new church start, but the reality with many churches is that:
· There are large high cost, high maintenance structures already there.
· The cost of the maintenance precludes hiring more staff and creating new programs.
· The church population has a history - traditions - that are already in place and members who are already there.
· The community is over populated with other faith communities.
Many historic denominations are struggling with just how to address the issue of declining membership because of challenging demographics and limited funding for dynamic programming because of a high percentage of church budgets being spent on bricks and mortar. Some denominations and judicatories have decided to look to new church starts and limit their financial exposure to churches (particularly in urban settings) which are in decline. Some of this shift in support is due to churches in which members are recalcitrant in looking at new ways for new days.
The New York Times article on church downsizing - which is linked below - stirred my thinking on what are some options for the building laden. While it was my blessing to serve such church and still have significant growth, I always felt greater spiritual and numerical growth was impeded by the property budget. (Just ponder the reality that in one church I served the property budget was close to one third - $350,000 - of the whole budget. Think of what half of that money - $175,000 - could do in the proclamation of the Gospel).
The following thoughts are offered to give insight and create dialogue on this every increasing challenge to mainline churches and their buildings.
· Begin with prayer for insight and letting go of past images and traditions about church. Include Bible study about what Christian community looks like and the core reality that church is more than a building. Begin future thinking outside the box, as if it were a new church start.
· Make significant, low cost changes to the outside appearance and interior that speaks to a next generation of seekers / worshippers. Landscaping, signage, etc. An occasional "curb appeal" check needs to be done. Add video monitors and consider other technology, consider changing from fixed pews to chairs, redecorate high visibility areas of the church - even a good paint job and some new furniture can change the feel to visitors.
· Get outside the building so that others might choose to come in. Hold study groups, personal visitations, office hours in the local diner, bar or coffee shop. Become involved in groups where potential seekers are - the church's presence in unexpected places helps others to let go of the church's historic image. It also helps to overcome any building fixation that some may hold.
· Broker the building. Fill empty spaces with good causes for low rent. A basic rent for filled space is better than no income from empty space. Consider forgetting about a portion of the tax exempt status by renting space to appropriate for profit organizations or businesses. Survey the landscape for good community programs needing space for expansion.
· Seek grants for creative, community betterment efforts - a place for artist studios, program space for veteran re-entry, the yet to be dreamed program.
· While some might consider this blasphemy, build an endowment that covers the property budget. Therefore, members are only responsible the costs for in-reach and outreach programs....programs are the heart of a ministry.
· Consider a shared ministry with another nearby church - no need at the beginning to select one of the buildings but design a creative program for the shared ministry that will give the ministry an identity of creativity and faithful witness - e.g. one building for worship as well as for outreach to the "in need" in your community and to the global community; the other a center for faith formation for all ages and space for youth and young adult ministry.
· If there is a campus setting, consider selling some of the property.
· As a last resort, sell the building and begin afresh or celebrate good death with giving the proceeds to a worthy cause.
We are blessed with buildings that are gifts from the past. Often they are works of art, majestic and awe inspiring. But they also inhibit our flexibility - Our Israelite ancestors in seeking the Promised Land moved their sanctuary (tent) with them. - and creativity in following the One who had no home and found any space to be holy space. Downsizing? Maybe! But before taking that step, up-size the vision of what a community of faith should be and then decide if the bricks and mortar can be an asset to reaching for that vision!