Dying Churches – a Solution?

Dying Churches – a Solution? December 10, 2018

Noah is a young church planter. Every Sunday morning he and a handful of volunteers haul mountains of gear into Stevens High School gym where they offer a church service. Then they haul everything back out. They’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on lights, sound equipment, folding chairs, nursery gear, kids’ church stuff, and a rubberized covering to protect the gym floor from nicks and coffee stains.

On a good Sunday Noah’s church plant attracts about 150 people. The church spends almost half of its budget on rent: for a church office, on a secure mini-warehouse (for the sound and lighting gear) and for the gym on Sundays.

Right across the street from Stevens High School sits Oakdale Avenue Church. Built in the 1960s, Oakdale meets in a paid-off facility. It has a sanctuary built for 300, Sunday school classrooms, a nursery and offices.

Attendance at Oakdale Avenue Church has been declining for years. The congregation draws about 15 worshippers on a typical Sunday, and their youngest active member is 62 years old.

Two churches. One has a building but no people. The other has people but no building.

Why can’t they get together?

In 2019 at least 3,500 churches in North America will close their doors. Meanwhile, some 3,500 new congregations will be planted – mostly in rented spaces.

Am I the only one who sees an opportunity here?

Dying congregations sit on millions of dollars in real estate. Their land and buildings were purchased with the tithes and offerings of faithful saints who went before.

What happens to these consecrated facilities when their congregations die? They sit idle. They’re razed to make way for new development. Or they’re converted into stores, taverns or even mosques.

If dying churches like Oakdale would hand over their buildings to church plants everyone would win.

Why is this such a rare occurrence? Here are five reasons church plants don’t move into existing facilities.

  1. Dying churches are in constant hope of a heavenly rescue. “We’re believing God for 12 new families!” their leaders say. But God doesn’t send families to churches that are poorly equipped to disciple them.
  2. Members of dying churches are possessive of their buildings. The idea of strangers coming into “our church” petrifies them.
  3. Dying churches are often located in dying neighborhoods. Planters prefer to target prosperous neighborhoods where young families reside.
  4. Dying church buildings are often small and landlocked, which constrains future growth.
  5. Traditional church buildings are not conducive to contemporary worship.

Point #5 is the real deal breaker. Let me explain.

The predominant church planting model today is based on Hillsong– but the Hillsong vibe requires a certain kind of building. You need a fairly large room with a minimum capacity of 500 (preferably larger). You need tall blacked out ceilings (20 feet high or more) to accommodate lighting trusses, stacked loudspeakers and large screens. And the room must be completely dark so the service looks good on video and the fake fog looks more worshipful.

When you try to do contemporary worship in a typical sanctuary (low ceilings, natural light, stained glass) it feels amateurish. Imagine U2 performing in a traditional church building and you get the idea.

How do we solve this dilemma? How can we keep these valuable facilities working for the Kingdom of God?

Quite simply, we need a church planting model that’s spiritually vibrant and financially viable at 200 members.

The market for Hillsong/Willow Creek clones is already saturated. What’s missing: a church that specializes in connecting people on Sunday morning. I think the small neighborhood church is poised for a comeback because it can deliver what a large church can’t– a greater experience of community on Sunday morning.

What might this model look like? I’ve got a church replanting idea in mind. It would be very inexpensive, very relational and very attractive to men. Best of all, I think it would be truly seeker friendly, and would embolden folks to invite their friends and neighbors.

Since nobody’s thinking about church planting in December, I’m going to present the concept on this blog in January. See you then.

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