A 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…