Last I came across an article posted in the Mental Floss twitter feed on 11 New Uses for Old Churches which shows some of the ways closed church buildings have been reconverted into restaurants, indoor playgrounds, homes, offices, etc. I retweeted it and also posted it to Facebook simply because I thought it was interesting, but it did get me thinking again about a subject that I have wrestled with in years past.
A couple years ago a church I was serving, and another United Methodist congregation (literally located three blocks away), began talking about the possibility of merging the two chuches. Historically, one church had been a part of the Evangelical United Brethren branch of our tradition and the other was part of the Methodist Episcopal, and from 1968 until about 10 years ago both congregations remained theologically different from each other and numerically strong enough to justify remaining independent entities. With aging congregations at both churches and some leadership shifts at the other church, an exploration of merger team was formed between the two congregations to explore the possibilities, and (unfortunately) it fell on me to lead that process.
In the midst of our meetings it seemed quite clear that the two congregations now shared the same values and theological differences we not nearly as pressing as they had been a generation prior... but the committee got stuck over what building they would use as a merged congregation. Obviously the ideal situation would be to sell both buildings and construct a new one, but given the demographics of the larger community that wasn't feasible (we would have been lucky to sell one building in a reasonable amount of time given the economic climate). As much as everyone around the table knew the idea that "the church is not a building" they simply couldn't move past the idea of sacrificing "their" place of worship. Looking back, as a leader I should have done more to push the issue and explore ways to think creatively about the theology of place and the opportunities before us, but I think I was feeling stuck like everyone else.
In that moment I because very sensitive to this issue of "building idolatry" - how our values, our perceptions of God, and how ministry itself is shaped by the collection of bricks and mortar we call "church." All too often, congregations are so focused on maintaining the physical structure, so much energy and money is put into things like curtains, carpet, boilers and leaky roofs that the things that should be our real focus get lost.
I don't know anything about the backstory of those 11 churches that have been converted, but I really wonder if that congregation in England had done a better job of intentionally reaching out to the kids who liked to skate, and had not been so worried of them skating in the parking lot; if they still might have been a worshipping congregation today, instead of a skatepark. And the congregation in Pennsylvania - is it possible they were too concerned with kids running around the church, making too much noise in the sanctuary, and spilling punch on the carpets that that building was no longer a friendly place for children, or their families? Now that it has been turned into a playground I bet there is more life, laughter, and love happening within those walls than there has been for the last 40 years.
It's heartbreaking when a congregation has to close it doors. I am someone who understands the sentimental attraction of architecture and space - I still frequently dream of returning to my grandparent's home and to my elementary school, though I no longer can - ironically because both those places have been converted into churches. I know it is hard to see (or even consider) that the place where you grew up, were married, had your kids baptized, and your parents buried, could ever be changed, sold, or even demolished. But at the end of the day, what we all need to realize is that a church building is only a building - sacred things happen there - but that's only because of the people and God's Spirit at work. The physical structure is merely a tool meant to make ministry happen. And when ministry doesn't happen; when all our energy goes into preserving the windows and walls, then before too long, we're going to lose it.
Maybe instead of worrying about the day our church buildings might be converted into charter schools, restaurants, office space, homes, skateparks, libraries, or play grounds, we should start thinking about ways that the buildings might be better utilized to meet some of those needs right now. The reality is a building that gets used for only a few hours a week is incredibly poor stewardship. How can we make better use of space, on our own, or by inviting outside groups in? How might we make the church building into a community resource, a community gathering point that embraces the sacred and the secular and makes room for all? And yes, if we were really willing to embrace this kind of change it would mean more work for the custodians, more headaches for the Trustees, it would mean all sorts of negotiations, communication, and there would even be misunderstandings and fights along the way, but I have to believe that in the end it would leave us with something more faithful and sustainable than the situation many congregations find themselves in now.