By Justin Horey
Everything that begins also ends. We may recognize that fact when we’re talking about businesses or vacations or even relationships. But what can we do when it’s time for a local congregation to shut its doors?
PJ’s Abbey has been one of many distinctive restaurants in Orange, California, a town that bills itself as the antiques capital of Southern California. With “an eclectic mix of old family favorites and creative cuisine,” PJ’s Abbey was notable for its menu, but most widely recognized for its facility—an old church building.
It’s an unusual concept, to be sure, but certainly not a unique one. In nearby Rialto, California, a similar building constructed in 1907 for First Christian Church now houses the Rialto Historical Society. Throughout Southern California and across the United States, once-sacred spaces like the former church buildings in Rialto and Old Towne Orange are being repurposed and reimagined—as restaurants, condominiums, museums, and more.
The phenomenon of “desanctified” church buildings is not new, though it is attracting increased attention. In 1985, The New York Times published an article on church buildings adapted to residential use in the New York City area, and in the quarter-century since then the issue of closed churches has become something of a curiosity for the mainstream media.
Some architectural historians celebrate the conservation of these century-old structures, but many Christians view former church buildings as painful reminders of once-thriving communities of faith. This problem is not unique to mainline denominations with historical buildings. In fact, according to Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond, coauthors of Legacy Churches, roughly 1 percent of all churches in America close their doors every year.1 If that estimate is accurate, more than 50 independent Christian churches—more than one in every state—will close this year alone.
Unused Facilities and Unmet Needs
Within driving distance of PJ’s Abbey and the Rialto Historical Society are countless new churches, many of them worshipping in rented facilities originally constructed for other purposes. One such congregation, Moment Christian Church of Irvine, California, began meeting for worship last October in Provision Ministry Group’s fourth-floor conference room while church leaders searched for a more convenient location.
The solution can appear painfully obvious—match the underused church buildings with new churches that can’t yet afford to build. Some new churches have indeed rekindled kingdom work in aging church facilities. For example, Common Ground Christian Church, a church plant in Tampa, Florida, was able to meet in a refurbished church facility originally used by Central Christian Church. (See their story, shared by Thomas Jones, in the August 5, 2007, issue of CHRISTIAN STANDARD.) But many church planters have become frustrated by the expense of refurbishing facilities, or the arduous legal process required to secure the property, or the unwillingness of older church leaders simply to relinquish their assets.
Still, an increasing number of Christian leaders now believe that older, declining churches can hold the answers for new churches. David Pace, founding president of Kairos Legacy Partners, is among them. He says, “One of the great tragedies of the modern church in America is we are squandering the legacies and the resources of our older churches. Just as people pass on their wisdom, their values, and their assets to the next generation, so too should our local churches. Kairos helps ensure the work of kingdom evangelism doesn’t end, but in fact continues forward, when one congregation ceases to exist.”
“Every Church Eventually Closes”
The problem of squandered church assets exists across Christian denominations, but it is particularly challenging for independent Christian churches, since there is no denominational structure to help coordinate the process. What’s more, many American Christians have viewed church closings as a problem to be avoided, but as Gray and Dumond point out, every church eventually closes.2
Bob Russell, retired minister of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, agrees. In the December 5, 2010, issue of The Lookout, he wrote, “Jesus promised that the gates of Hades would not be able to overcome his church. But that promise to the universal church does not necessarily apply to individual congregations.”
Jones goes further, writing, “Perhaps the greatest church in the New Testament was at Antioch, but there is no evidence of that church today. It died. Its legacy is found in the churches that were started after Antioch.”
Indeed, Scripture gives no indication that individual, local congregations should or could last forever. Rather, it appears that all local churches—including those specifically named in the New Testament—eventually cease to exist. Gray and Dumond go so far as to say “no local church was intended to last forever.” In fact, “it’s really not a matter of ‘if,’ but ‘when’” your church will close.3
Somehow over the history of the church, the idea of closing a church has become a very sensitive issue. But Jesus’ words in John 12:24 can apply to local congregations: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Pace says that is why Kairos Legacy Partners exists: to help churches, when appropriate, die in order to produce many seeds. He cites a limited but growing number of “legacy church” success stories, like Central Christian Church in Tampa, Florida, and First Christian Church in Santa Ana, California.
Bob Kelly, senior pastor of First Christian Church, says, “Becoming a legacy church was a radical idea at first. Our property was worth more than $5 million, so the thought of giving it away took some real soul searching. Today, our people know that because we donated our land and buildings, new churches are being planted across the country. And hundreds, even thousands, are hearing the gospel proclaimed every week—something our little group of 45 people could never have accomplished on our own.”4
How Does It Work?
In his work with Kairos, David Pace’s initial objective is to assess the ongoing viability of plateaued and declining churches. He says, “Our team comes alongside church leaders to help them find answers to the difficult questions they are facing. When appropriate, we also assist with what we call ‘good closings,’ in which the legacy of the church is preserved and its service to Christ’s kingdom is appropriately honored.”
When Kairos assists with a closing, the church’s legacy is celebrated—not lost. In their book, Gray and Dumond stress the importance of celebrating legacy churches, writing, “We become what we celebrate.”5
Kairos helps coordinate closing services, both public and private, to allow each legacy church to rejoice in the work God has done through it. These services typically include current and former members of the congregation, as well as the recipients of the legacy church’s assets. Pace says, “It is deeply moving to witness a sort of death, burial, and resurrection firsthand when a legacy church and a new church plant come together in celebration.”
Lastly, Kairos assists with the liquidation and donation of the legacy church’s assets—whether directly to a new church, a church planting organization, or other Christian ministry. That way, even if the original building is converted to a restaurant, the donation of the proceeds from the sale ensure that congregation’s original mission of feeding hungry souls carries on.
To learn more, or to take the legacy church test, visit www.KairosLegacyPartners.org or call (855) KAIROS7.
1Stephen Gray and Franklin Dumond, Legacy Churches (Saint Charles: ChurchSmart Resources, 2009), 70.
3Ibid., 36, 100.
4Visit www.KairosLegacyPartners.org/videos to hear more of the First Christian Santa Ana story.
5Gray and Dumond, Legacy Churches, 101.
Justin Horey is marketing director with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.