Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
Many US Christians grew up singing the Sunday School song "We Are the Church" by Richard Avery, with its lyrics asserting, "The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple." Yet despite how often these words have been intoned by US Christians, they have often acted as if the church were a building.
For a long time, constructing or buying a structure has been the sign that a congregation has arrived. This understanding was actively exported around the world, too, by Western missionaries. A real church has a building, or so the reigning assumption has been.
Much of a congregation's budget often goes towards maintaining and improving that building. The average mainline Protestant congregation in the United States is well over 100 years old. That means in many cases buildings that are similarly old and thus in need of frequent and frequently costly repairs. Yet it also means generations of emotional attachments to the building, which have driven congregations to keep investing in their buildings, despite the costs.
When the pandemic hit, most churches had to worship outside of their buildings. Many US Christians were eagerly awaiting the day that they could reconvene in their buildings and once again experience the sense of God in worshiping together in that place. The togetherness is certainly important, but the place is quite important for many too.
Yet for a small but noticeable group, the pandemic has had the opposite effect: Instead of eagerly awaiting the day when the congregation could return to its building, experiencing church apart from the building got those congregations to reflect on whether the time and money it costs to maintain a building are really worth it. Again, I'm not the first person to point this out. Mya Jaradat wrote an excellent piece for the Deseret News about this trend, focused on a profile of a recent United Methodist church start in Houston.
Congregations in older, dilapidated structures are probably more likely to entertain such questions. Smaller congregations, who have experienced greater financial impacts from the pandemic, may also be more likely to ditch their buildings, especially since it is easier to accommodate a smaller number of people in a variety of alternative settings, from living rooms to cafes to other community locations. And newer congregations, with less history and emotional attachment to their buildings, may also be more willing to ask whether a building is really worth it.
The question, then, is not just whether congregations will close and leave behind their buildings because of the effects of the pandemic, but whether congregations will decide to continue to exist but without their buildings, having been pushed in that direction by the pandemic.
This possibility that congregations might decide to continue to exist but without a building is both a revolutionary approach to being church in the United States and a missional opportunity. House churches have characterized Christianity is places from the early Mediterranean to contemporary China, but the model has not been extensively used in the United States. The pandemic may make the house church model more prominent, if congregations decide to ditch their buildings in favor of more distributed or virtual places to connect.
Another pre-pandemic model that might be useful for churches considering jettisoning their buildings is the Fresh Expressions movement. Fresh Expressions focuses on creating instances of church that are adapted to a specific local community. Quite often, these expressions of church do not meet in traditional church buildings, but rather cafes, parks, restaurants, and even tattoo parlors.
If a congregation decides to dispose of its building, that creates some different missional opportunities than if a the church closes and leaves the building to the denomination. Rick Reinhard argued in a commentary for UMNS that closing congregations could leave the denomination with a "real estate crisis." Pre-pandemic, The Atlantic called attention to this problem as well.
Yet local congregations have greater incentive to sell or repurpose their properties than annual conferences or other regional bodies who are trying to manage a portfolio of closed church properties and are less familiar with the specifics of any individual property.
This has led to some examples of churches finding creative solutions to use their buildings to forward mission instead of trying to keep a too-large physical plant going for a small number of people. Tom Sine and Dwight J. Friesen share some examples. Lovett H. Weems Jr. and Ann A. Michel share another example. Even if the result of selling a church is just freeing up more money for mission and ministry, the results can be significant, as Weems and Michel mention.
Given the investment that most US congregations have in their buildings, it will likely be only a small number who decide to go building-less as a result of the pandemic. But, as in other aspects of life, this small number pushed in that direction by the pandemic will amplify nascent trends from before the pandemic. Even if church-in-a-building remains the dominant model, as it almost certainly will, the resulting ecclesiological and missiological reflections from building-less churches are likely to be helpful to the church's self understanding.