It seems clear enough - from my chair anyway - that churches unwilling to undergo some phase of intentional redevelopment these days could be headed for rough waters. Perhaps it's a false choice with many more nuances than this, but it appears there's a fork in the road for many of us: innovate/rebrand/recommit - in short, get really entrepreneurial really fast - or else face the eventual possibility of a period of decline at the end of which may be a divestment or even foreclosure of some sort.
Churches gone all the way down that ramp find property divestment itself can be the worst kind of indignity, usually at the bottom of a string of indignities. As noted last month in the Daily Journal of Commerce, faced with end-of-the-line reality, the faithful feel homeless, suddenly twisting in the wind: pillars of the church wonder where their funerals might be held, or real estate brokers come with offers based strictly on land value. No one sees the old building for the spiritual gem it is, but neither can we pay to keep the lights on. Shall we call the bishop and discuss handing over the keys? Is there still time to do anything different?
It's even harder than that, of course: along the way lurk a number of thoroughly unpleasant questions. The less they're addressed over time, the greater the chance of catastrophe. But if we find ourselves asking them, it may mean we're in slow-burn mode.
... "How do we pay to heat and cool and insure and clean a sanctuary we're using five percent of the total hours of the week?"
... "In fact, come to it, why does most of our entire facility go mostly unused most of the time?"
... "What's to keep us from explaining our situation to the groups we've hosted for free all these years, in the hopes they can help maintain some of our operating costs?"
... "How long until the endowment runs out?"
... "Why do we run ourselves ragged doing fundraisers for everything but the general fund?"
... "Are we too proud to admit we need help, or at least someone to help us see the situation a little differently?"
... "Why don't we write for a scholarship or two to fund that new ministry we want to pursue instead of reaching into our common purse all the time?"
... "Why don't we consider what would happen if we opened our doors to host another congregation - one either on the way up from house-church status or on the way down from just having divested itself of a building?"
... "Is there anything we might do to guarantee revenue generation apart from dwindling plate and pledge?"
... "Do we need this building in order to be church? Is there another way to realize the fact of our community in Christ apart from bricks and mortar?"
If you find yourself in a situation demanding that you start asking any of the foregoing questions or some versions of them, don't wait. Deck chairs; Titanic.
The congregation I serve has been through a huge bit of processing - is still engaging that process - thanks to the Episcopal Church Building Fund and its program Recasting of Building Assets. You can probably tell by my list of questions that that process has not been easy and might not get any easier any time soon. But at least The Episcopal Church has in its trove a group willing to help stir the pot, announce reality, and instill entrepreneurial spirit. ECBF doesn't promise perfection or total turnaround, but I think it's safe to say the Recasting effort tries to help orient congregations to the truth of their situations.
I'm grateful for that - glad for the fact of the truth and all the setting-free it does - and I'm trying to evangelize for it.
The ethicist Lewis Smedes said, "Without Jesus we are stuck with two options: utopian illusion or deadly despair. I scorn illusion. I dread despair. So I put all my money on Jesus." That doesn't mean Jesus is somewhere between the heady poles of illusion and despair; it means Jesus stands in a different place altogether, and that's with the truth. In the end, those of us who claim his banner really don't have any other place to stand but with him and wherever he is.
So go on and ask one of those questions, or whichever one it is about your congregation's future that's burning a hole in your heart. It may be less painful in the long run than it initially appears.