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. Dan,

    Different forms of Christian community do different things and so do need different kinds of space to do them as well as possible.

    We really need to be more realistic, I think, about what the congregational format of Christianity is and has been designed to accomplish since about the sixth century.

    Basically, the congregation as we have known it all these years (over 1400 of them!) was and is designed to be a PUBLIC form of Christian community that does the following, and really not much else:

    1) The public worship of God
    2) Teaching the basic doctrine of the faith
    3) Providing some means for caring for each other (pastoral care, fellowship groups, and the like)
    4) Being a good “institutional player” for the good of the larger community

    Those are the things, and really the ONLY things, the congregation AS congregation, is designed to do.

    Making disciples– committed followers of Jesus who are growing in grace and holiness– is not on that list. It never has been except in “marginal” settings since about the sixth century.

    That doesn’t make congregations bad things. It just means they are what they are. If we want discipleship to happen for more than a very few number of people, we need to create additional forms of Christian community that facilitate that.

    For many centuries in many places, monasteries and extra-ecclesial “societies” took on that role.

    In England in the 18th century, Methodism did that.

    In both, it was understood that BOTH some kind of congregational life AND some kind of accountable small group life were essential for people to grow in holiness and discipleship to and mission with Jesus. So those early Methodists weren’t trying to rethink church without congregations and the signficant facilities they had to do what they did– public worship, teaching, care, and being institutional players. Rather, they were trying to rethink church by ADDING structures that ALSO helped everyone in those additional structures ALSO grow in holiness of heart and life.

    Congregations as public institutions usually can not do that well. If you are public, you are de facto open to everyone, and you really can’t exclude (or even easily discipline) anyone that the local public standards would say are fine the way they are. That’s pretty much what being a public institution means. It’s almost certainly what folks who hear “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors” think we mean when they hear that.

    When Christianity went public, then, and located its public life in more public buildings designed for the public… well there were tradeoffs in what it could do in those public forms of community.

    The biggest trade-off was that being public means you’re not going to focus much on growth in holiness as a norm for everyone to be part of the community in the first place– because you can’t. The number of people is too large to hold each other accountable. And they can’t hold people accountable for much– being a public institution.

    When (and where, still today) the church is a house church, it was (and often is) not a public institution. And historically, what we would now call the congregation was not a public institution until after Christianity became not just legal but THE legal religion in the late fourth century. In many places, you would never see ANY part of Christian Sunday worship until you had been in intensive daily catechesis for three years or more! The “congregation” was much more of a secret society with its own secret ritual (and therefore, in part, maligned, ridiculed, and accused of all sorts of terrible things by those who were not part of it!).

    If you think that ONLY the pre-Constantinian form of Christian communities– where the congregation was not public and was very exclusive– got it right, then, maybe you can get away without significant public worship spaces, teaching facilities, and sizable institutional expenses for those things and for the public good. But if you think that the post-Constantinian forms of congregation as public institution PLUS other forms of Christian community that are more intensive and focused on growth and mission can ALSO be right– and then if you recognize that THOSE represent the primary reality of the UMC, then, well, there is good reason, as Dean noted, to invest well in such facilities.

    Where Methodism really began to vanish isn’t when it started building significant public buildings per se. It’s when it quit ALSO holding its membership accountable in other forms of community that were exclusive and very effective and making disciples of Jesus who were joining God’s mission of transforming the world.

  2. You raise a very important point here Dan. I am particularly drawn to this:”“Being” church is a foreign concept to many, and the absence of a location and structure would undermine their relationship to the congregation.”

    In my workshops on Wesleyan Leadership I talk about the distinction between “Church going” and “Church-being.” My point is that too often the church is understood to be a place where members go to consume religions goods and services. They expect to be blessed and affirmed by the worship, preaching and programs. Church becomes something akin to a religions department store. People “go to church” and “when church is over” they go out for lunch and shopping. The church, unfortunately, reinforces this consumer mentality when membership is regarded as privilege and blessing (cheap grace) rather than a covenant relationship (responsible grace).

    The Biblical understanding of church membership contained in the Baptismal Covenant is that of “church being.” The church is not to be a dispenser of religious goods and services to be consumed by isolated individual. Rather, the church is a living, breathing organism. This is why Paul refers to the church as being the “body of Christ.” If we really believed the baptismal covenant we would never talk about “going to church” or “when church is over” because we would believe that the church resides in the life and witness of the people. The building is simply a place where the church gathers for worship, prayer, teaching, and planning for mission in the world. When worship ends the people take the church with them into the world. They live in theworld as “ambassadores for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20).

    Thanks, Dan, for another excellent, thought provoking post.

  3. In my mind, this is the “build it; they will come” theory. Issues arise for me after the building and any influx of people. Will “community” be built as well? Will the leadership–clergy or lay–encourage and bring about ministry beyond the building, or even within it? Will the space be flexible and offered for use?

    One of my dreams is smaller “faith communities” maybe meeting in homes or public places. They could meet periodically (monthly?) for larger group experiences, and maybe networks of such “churches” could then share one facility, with each network meeting on a particular Sunday of the month in the “church building.”

    “Paid staff” could share office space, etc. Pastors might have more time and energy for a variety of pastoral tasks that in my experience competed for time and money with building or institutional matters.

    Shalom! dave

  4. To answer the question in your opening sentence:
    1. We would no longer worship as a congregation, including congregational prayer, song, liturgy, sacrament, and fellowship.
    2. We would not gather in affinity groups for education, study, nurture, and mission.
    3. There would be no preaching to the flock. Indeed, as you indicate, there would be no flock.
    4. There would be no physical presence within the community to serve as headquarters for outreach and mission: clothes closets, soup kitchens, counseling, day care….
    5. Individuals would lose the best opportunity for fulfilling their membership vows and responding to God’s call to serve through prayers, presence, witness, gifts, and service.
    6. The human need to join with and belong to a group of others pledged to similar efforts is lost – we are frustrated in forming a community and identity in Christ.

    The good that is accomplished in a church with buildings and property, even with the flaws and shortcomings, far outweighs the alternative. Should the local church include opportunities for worship, education, administration, fellowship, outreach, community mission, and parking? Yes. Or should we go back to tents? Maybe all house churches?

    I understand that you are making a case for better-planned church buildings and not questioning the need for congregational space and location. If so, I agree.

  5. I wonder about a parallel question: In what state would our churches be if we woke up tomorrow and had no paid staff? I sometimes think that the professionalization of church weakens us more than our “edification.”

  6. Unfortunately all to often the building itself seems to be the primary witness we have in the community… a mere structure.

    We had a fire at our church in 2001 and it destroyed our sanctuary, we have grown a lot since then, but most members who went through the fire recall the times of squeezing into our small gym for worship as the most spirit filled time our congregation has ever had. Of course we are grateful for the new facility we have… but the days of just trying to find a seat in that gym have given way to sitting down in the same seat each week, interacting with the same people, and community is much more surface. (I am not bashing our church by any means, a lot of things are happening the way they should, and I imagine the level of fellowship at our church is something other UMC churches dream of. Nonetheless it is despite the facility not because of it.)

  7. Equally disheartening- If all our church buildings were to just disappear overnight, would the surrounding communities even notice?

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