When historic churches suffer Esau congregations

David Greusel

December 14, 2011

The Cities article isn't about whether or not churches love their buildings enough, but rather about what a church can or must do when faced with a choice between maintenance and ministry.  I agree that churches, especially magnificent ones, are much needed in the city, but casting the choice as one between rich architecture and impoverished faith?  Really?  It doesn't matter where a church is located if it is unable to engage its Jerusalem because it has become a slave to a whitewashed tomb.

December 14, 2011

There are many older churches that can't be maintained due to exorbitant upkeep costs. And if the church's membership is elderly, as many churches are these days, the people should not go into debt to try to maintain the "Biblical understanding of beauty." 

To say that these people have an impoverished faith is unfair.

December 14, 2011

I'm not sure I agree that the church needs to have a building.  The church is God's people.  I have a sneaking suspicion that if salaries and facility costs didn't exist, the church would be far more productive...

December 14, 2011

This reminds me of the time when Jesus’s disciples were showing him the beautiful temple in downtown Jerusalem. “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Mark 13. Then Jesus prophesied the physical building’s destruction. At His trial he was quoted to have said, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’ Mark 14. The church is not about magnificent buildings, it is about magnificent people who meet in buildings, in fields, in storefronts, in warehouses, in catacombs and occasionally in beautiful buildings. Whether it is the grossly expensive and gaudy Crystal Cathedral or the gorgeous but empty European Gothic cathedrals, it is a mistake to mis-identify a building as God’s house. I agree that church should not abandon the inner city. But the church is in the inner city, whether they meet in a storefront pentecostal church or a crowded apartment as they do in China. When a historic denomination closes the doors on a magnificent stone edifice because of lack of attendance, it does not mean the church has abandoned the city. I agree, every church needs a revival that would fill a building. However, demographics change, a neighborhood once filled with big Polish families who build a magnificent stone church may become an enclave of Cambodian refugees, or even gentrified young people, who can’t support the expensive real estate and are more comfortable meeting in humbler, more casual places of worship. That is the body of Jesus that He promised to raise up after the temple was demolished.

Laura's Last Ditch
December 14, 2011

One historic church in our city moved to a storefront in a worse area of the downtown, to be able to use the savings for ministry. That is stewardly and admirable. Even with a large congregation, the less that's spent on bricks and mortar, the more can be spent on ministry.

Yet, maintaining a beautiful building is a sort of ministry. There are people who would never go to a pole barn-style building with amped music, who would be drawn to a beautiful building with quality traditional, liturgical worship. My husband is one of them, so I am very glad churches like this still exist.

God can use us in any building if we have willing hearts.

December 14, 2011

A number of years ago my wife and I stayed for a few days in the home of an elderly woman in the Los Angeles basin. On Sunday we went to church with her. We drove out of her neighborhood, a nice suburb, into an older part of town which was obviously at a lower socio-economic level and largely Hispanic. In the middle of that neighborhood was a beautiful stone church. The congregation consisted almost entirely of older Anglos. The church was not even 1/4th full.

After the service the woman told us about her church. Like her, most of the members of the congregation had moved to the suburbs. Attendance had been going down for years. She wanted my advice on what might be done to revive her church. I can't remember what I said. I remember struggling in my mind to say something true yet kind.

I wanted to dig down into her question about reviving her church. What would that mean to her? If the building was full of a thriving Hispanic congregation with services in Spanish, would she identify that as a renewal, or did she want back the old glory days of that congregation? I suspected the latter and she gave some indication to that effect.

My own home church has a beautiful facility and an older congregation that it dwarfs. They want the church to be different, but only different on their terms including worship style and even political stance.

It looks to me like older, beautiful urban churches find themselves in problems as much for the lack of real vision on the part of the believers who attend them as anything else.

John Van Sloten
December 14, 2011

I like the picture of a downtown Calgary church!

December 14, 2011

Those old church buildings are great.  But let's be honest: buildings are just buildings.  Sure, the Temple and even the Tabernacle were some great buildings built by God's own design. However, the extravagance put into those buildings were really only for those buildings.  There is no Biblical mandate to continue that kind of extravagance into other religious real estate.  

But this issue is quite complicated.  For some of these communities, a place where congregations can all meet together is important.  I've seen cases where wealthier churches help out poorer churches with building maintenance and upkeep.  In fact, the last three churches that my wife and I have attended did this sort of thing.

However, there comes a time when we have to realize that keeping the building simply because it has been a church for such a long time is simply a tradition and the tradition is enslaving a congregation.  So while it may suck for congregations  to move, we have to realize that this is an OK thing because in the end, the church isn't about the building - it is about God's people serving other people not real estate.

December 22, 2011

I don't buy that every preservation order is a "taking" that needs to be compensated. I do agree that many church buildings, particularly those that have lasted for 100 years or more, are part of the architectural landscape of a city, and worth preserving for that reason, regardless of the faith of the people inside.

Since this is an imposition for the benefit of all, there should be a fund available so that, if a corporate body of a church cannot afford to maintain the building for its own purposes, with its own revenues, then funding for basic physical plant can be provided. Yes, there would be some church-and-state litigation, but that can be worked out. Its only the excess costs of physical maintenance that are being funded, and for a secular purpose.

Another option is to sell the building, with covenants that provide for keeping the building intact, but using it for another purpose. I am familiar with one former church building which ended up becoming an art studio, for instance.

January 24, 2012

Here is one solution that I have come across on more than one occasion. In my local area (I hail from Long Island), churches that have financial difficulty (or dwindling numbers) are merging with larger churches. These larger churches often will incorporate the existing congregational remnant into their infrastructure and treat the "old" building a as "new" church plant. Or perhaps more interestingly, a previously mobile church merges with an existing, struggling church to breathe new life into the building (and the people1!).

Obviously if both parties come from the same denominational background, the transition is not too difficult. Real challenges arise when there are different polities and minor theological differences. And not to mention both church's traditions!

But these challenges aside, merging is a great way to breathe life (and money) into buildings that have good locations.

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