This is a completely hypothetical question, but I think there is some merit in asking it:
- “What if we were never to return to our church buildings?
- “What if we were forced to practice Christian community without the benefit of a dependable, static, permanent physical space?”
I think the question is worth pondering—not because I think that is our most likely future. No, because this time gives us a real opportunity to discover which of our ministries are building-dependent and which are only person-dependent. It gives us an opportunity to discover where our physical structures are a barrier to ministry and where they are an asset.
Just a couple of a years ago a PCUSA church in a presbytery close to us decided that they could no longer survive and maintain their massive church structure that had been built for a much larger congregation. Many churches see this as a sign that closure is imminent. Not this church. They decided that they would continue to support the mission and ministry of the church just as before, but remove the building from their budget. Pledges stayed stable, but the expenses were dramatically reduced. Reports soon starting coming in that this congregation found a new life as the thousands of dollars that had been dedicated to the building were now being dedicated to local mission.
A few years ago, I was in an ecumenical meeting where we were talking about trends in membership and a participant said, “It used to be the churches committed 10% of their budget to mission and 90% to operating costs. I hear the younger generation wants to see those figures reversed—10% to operating costs and 90% to mission.” The comment may have been exaggerated for effect, but it is a trend that I see. Many people cannot justify pledging money to building maintenance when people are literally going hungry on the streets.
I am not advocating getting rid of our church buildings. Far from it. Our buildings allow us to provide for vital ministries such as food pantries, glorious music and worship, AA meetings, community meetings, church fellowship, and even a symbolic reminder to the community of that which is holy and sacred.
But this moment does provide an opportunity. The fact is that some of our churches will have to wrestle with the possibility that their building has become more of a burden than a blessing. Some of our churches will discover that aspects of their ministry are actually better done by Zoom than by requiring everyone to drive through rush hour traffic for a meeting. Some of our churches will move parts of their ministry off site while inviting other ministries to share in building use.
What if we were never able to return to our buildings? You may not have to plan on it, but it would be a great hypothetical question to help you discover how critical your building is to your ministry.
Explore this simple question at your church. “Where is our building a blessing and where it is a burden?”
Your answers may surprise you.
They may scare you.
They may delight you.
They will certainly change you.
Let’s not let this opportunity pass us by.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades