Once upon a time, a group of friends got together in a living room to pray, to sing, and to have a meal together. Their community was contagious. Others began to join them until the living room was packed to discomfort each time they gathered. Eventually, the friends realized they needed to rent a more public space for their gatherings.
It was a Big Adventure with Jesus as they inhabit the auditorium, 3 classrooms and a hallway (for the nursery) at the local junior high school. The congregation continues to grow, and they hire a pastor, then a combo worship leader/youth pastor. Setting up and tearing down each week is alternately a hassle and a point of shared-experience bonding for the group, but the consensus grows among them that their lack of a regular meeting place communicates impermanence to some potential members. A building fund is established, and before too long, the congregation buys a chunk of suburban farmland. They continue to meet at the junior high each week.
A few more years pass and the building fund ripens sufficiently to move on to Phase II. The leadership team – because the church now has a leadership team – hires a consultant to help them navigate the building phase of the project. There are meetings, a banquet, and a couple of sermon series featuring thinly-veiled requests for money disguised as messages about stewardship and mission, along with a lot of talk about faith committments and pledges. Though building projects can divide a church, the congregation navigated the process with a great deal of committment and camaraderie.
At last, the goal is met! The building is built! A beautiful, shiny specimen of a modern building, sparkling along a suburban highway. Big, bright Kidzone. Spacious sanctuary with state-of-the-art sound and lighting. Sprawling parking lot, bookended by a couple of basketball hoops for the FourNinetyEight Youth Group to use after their midweek meetings. Within a year, the congregation has doubled in size, populated with young families from the surrounding `burbs.
There were plenty of growing pains, of course. But mostly the church was adding to its membership rolls. After all, this church was the place to be! There was always something exciting happening there! There were small groups meeting in homes, of course, but everyone knew that the real ministry seemed to happen most freqently at one of the many events at the building.
No one knew it then, but these days were the apex of the building’s life span. A power struggle disguised as a doctrinal debate caused an associate pastor to leave, and within a few months, about 20 percent of the congregation goes with him. (They began meeting in someone’s living room, dreaming about a new kind of church they’d plant together that would remedy the issues with the one they’d just left.) Then there was an affair between a couple of high-visibility members that led to a messy, gossip-fueling divorce. The leadership team became increasingly focused on managing the in-house crises and dramas of the congregation.
Attendance numbers plateaued, then begin to trend downward. The church trims its missions program. Quietly lays off some staffers. More people leave. They’re hovering near the same number of people they had when they moved into the building, though at least 50% of the present group wasn’t part of the congregation at the time.
And then the bottom dropped out of the stock market. Housing values nose-dive. Key givers lose their jobs. The church isn’t able to pay its bills. The pastor hits the congregation with messages about sacrificial giving and what it means to be a part of this church that leave a sour taste in many congregant’s souls…and pocketbooks. Giving continues to contract. A few more families leave quietly.
Finally, they’re no longer able to pay the mortgage. The pastor begins substitute teaching at the junior high where the congregation used to rent space. The church is headed into foreclosure.
Wait. That’s not quite right. The church building is headed into foreclosure. The church’s shiny container, Kidzone and all, is about to be turned over to the bank. The congregation, those who are left, grieve their lost building…and their lost relationships…and began to remember that God didn’t call them to inhabit a building, but be His body.
Happily ever after? Not yet. But in this loss, I am hopeful that clarity and joy are possible for this bride-in-the-making.
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I am hearing stories of churches facing foreclosure on their buildings during these painful days of economic contraction and pruning. Though it would be easy to read these sad real estate events as a form of loss for the kingdom, I am not so sure that’s always the case.
Agree? Disagree? Why?