It is no secret that attendance at most churches has been significantly declining over the past three decades. There are many and varied reasons for this exodus but those issues are not my focus for this blog. In my travels visiting churches, I have witnessed that many church facilities which were built for larger congregations now have meeting, classroom and gathering spaces which are no longer being used because the congregational population is not there nor active anymore.
I have recently visited four churches who have embraced a gambit which they called the “re-purposing” of their space. One church turned their entire facility into a daycare program. It is run by a staff hired by the church and they have over 30 children, none of which are parishioners of the church. The pastor said it was their bread and butter and panacea for the church’s fiscal woes. Since the church facilities are somewhat small, the daycare takes over the entire church complex including the sanctuary. The downside of this wonderful program which serves the community is that it cripples the church of any day time use. As a director of prayer and worship and organist, that would mean I wouldn’t have access to the facility for practicing, rehearsals, meetings or recitals midweek. For me that would be a tremendous handicap since I dedicate my full time to serving and growing the parish which would include and demand weekdays. Many of the programs I would design would require use of the facilities at this time because most of the regular ministry programs with the laity would naturally take place in the evening. Still, it is a wonderful service the church provides the community but doesn’t do much to build the worshiping community since as I mentioned, the families of the children do not belong to the church.
Another church has a four story Sunday School complex, huge kitchen and gymnasium as part of their sprawling facility. Now that the congregation size is down to about 50 members, they have no use for all that space. In the spirit of re-purposing, they now rent out three floors to the Department of Social Services who operates a daycare center for underprivileged families. This wonderful program provides free daycare to over 200 children each day but likewise, none of the families belong to the church. Meanwhile, on the ground floor they rent out office space to whomever wants it. They have an freelance writer, a volunteer organization that repairs books then sends them out to libraries, a supplemental food pantry for the city, an out of town attorney who comes in once a week to meet with clients, and the local police department even has a room for when the officers on foot need a place they can retire to to get warm or, whatever. The gym is rented out to a Judo instructor who offers classes each evening. The problem with that is that the choir room is adjacent to the gym and there is only a portable divider wall between the two rooms. The judo students complain about the choir and the choir complains about the judo classes. But, such is the level of respect many music programs have in churches. Money trumps all. The pastor told me that their small congregation has no further use for the large kitchen facility with two ten burner stoves, two ovens, a large walk in freezer and dinning service for up to 800 settings. I suggested that they find someone looking to start up a bakery to rent the space or at least offer the space to one of the many organizations who provide meals to the poor.
The other two churches have likewise re-purposed their spaces in an effort to make money and at least gives the appearance that the church is alive and vibrant. I asked one pastor what ministries his church provides for the community and the only answer he had was re-purposing. What do they pay him for?
While it is a great value to businesses and individuals who are small, poor, or are community service organizations, to have access to a space they can call their own without exorbitant overhead costs, it doesn’t appear that any of these business partnerships bring new people into the churches. Many churches offer space to AA and NA groups but I suspect that the people who attend these valuable and life saving services ever even consider joining the host church.
I did serve a parish where the AA and NA people using our building began to participate because they regularly interacted with our church staff and were invited to take part in activities. They started attending my weekly organ recitals, then volunteering to serve as ushers, then they began coming to our pot lucks, then in exchange for rent they volunteered to do work around the building complex, then some of them began attending Sunday services, a few became members and got married in the church and had children. Growth does work but only if there is the initial and maintained energy to make it work. Energy begets energy but it has to be sustained and re-worked for any program to sinuously network and bear fruit. If pastors dedicated their time to doing this, the homily would take care of itself.
The downside of re-purposing dormant church space is that if the church ever hires the right person and the church begins to see growth again, they will no longer have the facility and resources that is required to accommodate that growth – unless they evict their tenants. I know that many church people reading this will say that their church doesn’t have anything going on during the weekday hours so renting out that space doesn’t hurt the church in any way. That may be true so, hire people who will develop programs to begin attracting people willing to serve and minister, thereby filling and requiring those spaces once again. Start with the clergy. Many pastors need to get real jobs instead of pretending to serve the community and hiding in their offices five days a week avoiding the people who really need them. I know one pastor who did that for five years then blamed the congregation for the lack of growth in the parish. If a pastor is bored, frustrated and depressed from his job, chances are they are not helping the parish or people either. Churches are becoming irrelevant and they seem to be doing whatever they need to to survive, except actively live out the Gospel. I hate the direction these churches and pastors are going. They are doing everything to survive except their jobs. A disgruntled and fed up (now ex) Roman Catholic priest once told me that the place God calls a church to is the place where their deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Wow, that is really simple and powerful. Maybe the church should try that. Don’t say it is easier said than done. Just do it. As the great spiritual leader Yoda once said, “There is no try, only do.”