Building Creativity

By Jennifer Johnson

According to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, churches spent close to $9 billion on new construction in 2002 and $3.5 billion in 2013. (Thanks, Great Recession.) Organizations analyzing church spending report congregations that own or rent existing buildings spend 20-30 percent or more of their budgets on loan payments, maintenance, and related expenses. For most churches in the U.S., buildings are necessary for building ministry, and the process isn’t cheap.

In addition to Real Life Church Newhall, Savia houses nonprofits that serve single mothers, victims of domestic violence, families in crisis, and a design build firm serving churches and nonprofits.
In addition to Real Life Church Newhall, Savia houses nonprofits that serve single mothers, victims of domestic violence, families in crisis, and a design build firm serving churches and nonprofits.

I’m not interested in the tired debate about whether a church should have a nice building that costs a lot of money when so many millions still haven’t heard the gospel. It’s easy to say a church shouldn’t spend money on a facility, but most people making that argument aren’t selling their own homes and living in campers so people in Malawi can hear about Jesus.

And just as it’s easy to point the finger at how other people spend their money while justifying your own Diet Coke habit and week at Walt Disney World, it’s easy to target the biggest megachurches and accuse them of poor stewardship while defending your own church budget.

This does not mean every congregation needs a “Hallowed Grounds” coffee bar and a racquetball court, but a church of any size at all has to meet somewhere (although I am intrigued by the trend toward smaller weekly gatherings that combine only once a month in a rented space).

So assuming church buildings aren’t going away any time soon, I’m less interested in quibbling over their form and more excited about focusing on their function. If we’re going to spend money on bricks and mortar, let’s at least use these buildings for more than weekend services and a few weekday programs serving the already saved.

Real Life Church’s Savia campus is one approach: rent part of a building to local organizations doing good work and accomplish a hat trick of recouping some costs and using extra space while making nonprofits and local missions more effective. (See related article.)

Or there’s Vox Veniae in Austin, TX, which renovated an existing abandoned building in a sketchy part of town, added trailers and rehabbed shipping containers, and uses the variety of interesting spaces for art shows, concerts, poetry slams, neighborhood gatherings, and even movie production.

But you don’t have to live near Hollywood or hipsters to be innovative. Partners for Sacred Spaces, here in my own Philadelphia backyard, says churches should inventory the “internal assets” of their existing buildings—such as good acoustics in a worship space, an equipped kitchen, or a flexible fellowship hall—and brainstorm new ways to use them for the community.

Shiloh Baptist here in Philly opened its doors to house another neighborhood church and hosted an art installation as part of a citywide festival; Capitol Drive Lutheran in Milwaukee offers a health ministry with a parish nurse who provides screenings and referrals; and Fort Street Presbyterian uses its 160-year-old Gothic Revival building in downtown Detroit for an “Open Door” ministry that provides food, haircuts, medical care, and career assistance to the homeless.

As Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Every church must honestly and thoughtfully consider its existing resources, its demographics, and its vision and decide what type of building can meet its God-sized goals while meeting a God-honoring budget. For some churches that might be tightening belts and making do, for others it’s new construction, for others it’s repurposing what exists.

Whatever the decision, the surveys say we’re spending billions on our facilities. Let’s get more creative about using them to facilitate ministry.

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