When the Church Itself Needs Saving

My Facebook friends Don Flowers and Erin Spengemen directed me to this Michelle Boorstein article from last Saturday’s Washington Post, which is well worth reading in its entirety.  It paints a vivid picture of how the church in America is struggling, and the radical measures some consultants are prescribing to save it.  One asks, “Are you willing to unscrew the pews?”

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St. Augustine’s was facing a death sentence.

The little Episcopal church on the Southwest Washington waterfront had seen the signs. Since its founders proudly founded St. Augustine’s as a racially integrated church in 1961, membership had wilted from 180 to 28. Key members passed away or moved. Paint peeled off the ceiling. Mold grew in the basement. The church couldn’t pay its bills.

“It was literally dying,” the Rev. Martha Clark said of her parish’s state in 2007, when the regional bishop gave St. Augustine’s three years to become self-sustaining or be shut down.

That’s where Bob Gallagher came in. A former Episcopal priest, the gentle 60-year-old is a professional church-savior, a consultant who travels the country trying to resuscitate houses of worship that are losing people and passion.  With large swaths of organized religion in decline across the nation, Gallagher’s dance card is full.

His initial meetings at St. Augustine’s were emotional. He confronted people who had been focused on paying the mortgage with more wrenching questions: Do you really have a reason to be in this neighborhood, or could you move somewhere cheaper? What does it mean to be an Episcopalian? Could you merge with a church from another denomination? Do you agree on worship styles? Who are you?

“I remember being in tears,” said Virginia Mathis, 64, a St. Augustine regular for 30 years. “He’s pushy in a gentle way.”

Wrestling with dramatic changes in how Americans practice their faith, many clergy members are willing to wait months to get guidance from Gallagher or someone like him. These consultants have become a small industry, roaming the country to challenge the definition of “church.”

When they work with congregations, they put everything on the table—including whether the pastor and the church building are even necessary. Perhaps worshippers could meet in a movie theater instead. Or consider sharing a pastor with some other church. Or ditch their Sunday morning services for a time more people would find convenient.

Consultants routinely press their clients to stop being so fixated on their real estate, routines and rules. They argue that there are plenty of people who don’t have any interest in sitting in pews and listening to sermons. The challenge is to come up with a way to engage them.

“The role of the church and the clergy is dying, but I think it needs to,” says Tom Brackett, another minister-consultant who works on church development for the Episcopal Church. “The church doesn’t have a mission. We are part of God’s mission.”

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Read the rest of the article by clicking HERE

I Was Wrong About Church Buildings

This article by Dan Kimball is a perfect illustration of what it means to be a “missional” church, buildings and all.  Enjoy!

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If you had asked me eight years ago what I thought about church buildings, I would have said, “Who needs a building? The early church didn’t have buildings, and we don’t need them either!” But I was wrong.

My anti-building phase was a reaction to having seen so much money spent on church facilities, often for non-essential, luxury items. I was also reacting to a philosophy of ministry that treated church buildings like Disneyland; a place consumers gather for entertainment. But these abuses had caused me to unfairly dismiss the potential blessing of buildings as well.

Consider the building occupied by Compassion International in Colorado Springs. It has a well-groomed lawn with sprinkler system, an attractive sign, and an expansive parking lot. It’s a nice facility. But it’s more than just a building—it is the headquarters and training center for a ministry that brings physical and spiritual nourishment to more than one million children in 25 countries. The Compassion building is used for a missional purpose, not simply as a place for Christians to gather and consume religious services.

When we planted our church in 2004, we needed a place to meet. We found a very traditional church building that had a sizable “fellowship hall” originally used only for donuts and coffee on Sundays. Wanting to use the building differently, we converted the fellowship hall into a public coffee lounge featuring music and art from the outside community. The Abbey, as it’s now called, is open seven days a week and offers free internet access.

Just yesterday I was in The Abbey and saw about 20 people, not part of our congregation, studying and hanging out. (During finals week I counted 90 students packed into the place.) While there I talked to a brand new Christian who has been coming to our gatherings. He found out about our church from a Buddhist friend. His friend loves coming to The Abbey and recommended our church because he trusted us.

We’ve also used our building to serve our community in times of crisis. When wildfires forced nearby residents to flee their homes, our building became an overnight refuge for those without a place to stay.

These missional opportunities would not be possible without a building.

What about the sanctuary? When we first got the building, one person said the sanctuary “looked like a funeral parlor.” We sought to remake the worship space to express our congregation’s values of community, worship, and service.

First, we removed the pews. Looking at the back of peoples’ heads simply didn’t communicate our values of community and participation.

We also invited local artists to create images during our worship gatherings. These were then displayed in the space.

The only cross in the building was very small, so we brought in a huge iron cross as the visual focus of our worship space. This clearly communicated that Christ was at the center of our mission.

We lowered the large wooden pulpit in order to facilitate more relational teaching, and we added a prayer shawl over the podium to reinforce our frequent talks about the importance of prayer in changing lives.

Little by little the space that had been powerfully missional in the 1930s and ’40s was transformed to reflect missional values of the 21st century. In 20 years I’m sure the way these values are expressed will have changed again, and I hope the design of the sanctuary and fellowship hall will change accordingly.

What’s important is that our mission drives our aesthetics and our use of space.

Today I am incredibly thankful we have a building. It allows us meet in larger groups for worship, and it allows for training classes that equip people for mission. We also use our space all week and welcome the public into it.

So, I have recanted from my earlier belief that buildings drain resources and create consumer Christians. I was wrong. Now I see them as missionary centers to impact lives for the gospel.

Dan Kimball is the pastor of Vintage Faith Church in Santa Cruz, California.  This article originally appeared in the online version of  Leadership Journal.