Church Without Churches

invisible-churchA thought exercise: what would happen to The United Methodist Church in these United States if when we woke up tomorrow morning, all our buildings and property were gone?  How many of our congregations would carry on with hardly a disruption?  How many “members” would we lose to churches with buildings?  How long would it take us to get reorganized?  Would one of our top priorities be to build new buildings or would we step back and, uhm, “rethink” church?  What would our worship look like?  Where would we gather?  What form would our fellowship take?  What about Christian education?  What would we do?

Approximately 60% of our current membership defines church as attending worship on Sunday morning.  “Going to church” describes the fundamental experience for the majority of United Methodists — especially inactives.  “Being” church is a foreign concept to many, and the absence of a location and structure would undermine their relationship to the congregation.  There is powerful evidence of this — when church buildings are destroyed 15-20% of attending members leave the church and fail to return when the church is rebuilt.  Approximately the same number attend other churches while their church is being rebuilt — even if their own church holds services someplace else.  And an additional 10-20% simply don’t attend any church until their church is rebuilt.  The most deeply engaged 25% will tend to stay loyal, committed, and active no matter where the church operates.

Place is important — I’m not saying it isn’t.  But in the church, sometimes location and place become weirdly too important.  Our buildings are not resources for ministry, they become idols we worship.  Churches pour incredible amounts of money and time into bricks and mortar, often at the expense of mission and ministry.  The vast majority of American churches possess much more space than they need or use (except to store costumes from the children’s pageant from 1972…).  Many churches use approximately 35% of their total space for an average of 15 hours a week.  Churches hold the dubious honor of having the greatest amount of underutilized public space in most American communities.

Throughout the 20th century, churches were built during boom times, in growth areas, with a short term vision.  Analyses of 40+ year-old church buildings (across a variety of denominations) indicates that the majority become an increasing drain on resources at almost exactly the same time as they experience membership decline.  An underexplored fact of United Methodism and its antecedents is that we are a two-generation denomination.  Very few of our congregations stay strong for more than two generations.  The ten strongest Methodist Church/Methodist Church South congregations in the 1890s were all struggling or closed by 1950; none of the strongest Methodist Episcopal/Evangelical United Brethren congregations of 1950 boast similar stories today.  We have been a denomination determined to ignore congregational life cycles (identified and discussed as early as 1916) to our own detriment from the beginning.  Knowing that we tend to overbuild and that our buildings will become liabilities rather than assets does almost nothing to dissuade our penchant for building big churches.  Only building costs provide any realistic limitation — and even there we build much more than we can actually afford most of the time.

Church would be a very different experience without our buildings.  We would lose some wonderful experiences and memories, but also opportunities.   Perhaps it is not as helpful a thought exercise to wonder what we would do without our buildings.  Maybe a better exercise would be to think of all the ways we could use our buildings so that it would be a true tragedy were they all to disappear…

17 replies

  1. hey dan,

    a thought exercise: do you live in a house? does it have walls or windows? does the presence of these material characteristics undermine your experience of family? do you sleep on a bed? does this detract from the experience of rest? as you experience travel in motion are you seated in an airplane, or in an automobile? does this compromise the journey?

    questions, as you know, provoke other questions!

    all in the adventure of the intellectual quest and with appreciation for your mind and ministry.

  2. I minister with a shared ministry congregation that has been “buildingless” since their founding in 1963. We rent space for all our activities, worship in the elementary school, have an office in a commercial builiding, hold events in public space. I’m convinced that it has made ministry possible in a small company town of 1500 people by removing the burden of ownership and maintenance. I’m also convinced that it has made ecumenical shared ministry possible by removing the fixed divisions that architecture imposes. My first seven years in ministry were spent with a congregation struggling to maintain what had become a national historic site. The needs of the building dominated every aspect of congregational life. Never again.

  3. Here’s a small thought: Could we begin to reinforce the idea of our communal responsibilities for gathering being “going to worship” and “being in worship”?

  4. I expect if we woke up tommorow morning and all our buildings had disappeared all of our (urban/suburban) pastors would start working in coffee shops and we would borrow or rent space from other churches or from schools or whatever for our sunday meetings.

    This makes me consider the underlying model that caused us to make all that space – i mean the reason we have all these classrooms (often empty) is b/c they were built to support a particular model of Sunday Morning age/marital status divided Sunday School classes before the worship service. If we did all that stuff in mid-week house groups and only gathered for corporate worship, or meals or whatnot we would likely need much less space. But then there is the whole vacation Bible school thing…haha.

    Interesting.
    PS – where did all those statistics come from?

  5. Dan,

    I’ve enjoyed keeping up with your blog for some time now and have read some of your books as well. Just a point for reference (and I see you had another comment that was of the same ilk): why do you say the following:

    “An underexplored fact of United Methodism and its antecedents is that we are a two-generation denomination. Very few of our congregations stay strong for more than two generations. The ten strongest Methodist Church/Methodist Church South congregations in the 1890s were all struggling or closed by 1950; none of the strongest Methodist Episcopal/Evangelical United Brethren congregations of 1950 boast similar stories today.”

    I don’t question the truthfulness of that statement, I was just curious if you had a reference to back it up. It raises some interesting questions regarding revitalization and new church development that I don’t think are getting sufficient attention. I’d be happy to have this conversation via e-mail, if you’d like.

    Blessings,

    Randall

    • About seven years ago I pulled lists of the ten largest churches in 1890 (MC/MCS), 1920, 1950 (Methodist Episcopal), 1970 and 1990 (United Methodist) from Archives and History and looked at their trajectories over time. Of the thirty from 1920, 50, & 70, on average 8-out-of-10 were struggling or in decline within twenty-thirty years. Our 1990 success stories are facing a similar period of plateau, decline, and struggle through the second decade of the 21st century. A congregation’s lifespan of health is about forty years, plateau twenty, decline ??? Sometimes revitalization happens, but not without a lot of help. I think it is valuable to plan around a natural lifecycle and understand that serious numeric growth is not sustainable and that short term enthusiasm often turns to long term burden. It isn’t that we shouldn’t be launching new churches designed for numeric success, but that we do it with our eyes and ears open.

      • Thanks, Dan, that is helpful, and yes, I agree we need to do *all* that we do with our eyes and ears open. The assumption of institutional perpetuity on the part of the local church is one that, as you point out, rarely gets brought up much, and has got me to wondering if we need to seriously consider how we go about both revitalization and launching new faith communities.

  6. “It isn’t that we shouldn’t be launching new churches designed for numeric success, but that we do it with our eyes and ears open.”

    As one trying to lead a congregation in a small rural town, where the major employer is going through bankruptcy, I am very aware of how our old, decaying buildings are limiting our ministry. Sure, our 105 year old sanctuary is beautiful, but it’s sucking the money out of us (paying the debt on a major renovation and keeping up with regular maintenance). In an era (and area) when one could count on the parish ministry model to work, heavy investment in long term buildings might be a good strategy. We’re not in that era here.

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