Flip That Church

Flip That Church March 28, 2006

I am a very occasional television viewer but recently have become mesmerized by a show called Flip That House. It seems like every time I turn on the television another episode is on (could it be because the show is on about 20 times a day?).

Have you seen it?

The premise of the show is that the cameras follow someone who “house flips” for a living—that is, buys a house, fixes it up and sells it for a huge profit. Usually this process takes 4-6 weeks and involves dramatic changes the appearance of the house. The suspense is, of course, that we won’t know if the flipper will get a return on her investment at the end or not . . . we hang on all through the show, critiquing tile choices and agonizing over uncooperative Real Estate agents. It’s all so suspenseful.

(Now that I think about it, though, I’ve never seen an episode where they didn’t make a whole boatload of money.)

Nevertheless, some of us still feel the suspense.

I pastor an urban church that has gone the way of most “big steeple” downtown churches in recent years . . . when everybody moved out to the suburbs the grand church began to look a little worse for wear, slightly worn around the edges. The big crowds weren’t coming like they used to; the staff spent most days dealing with nursing home visits and homeless people. These downtown churches are kind of like a tarnished Aladdin’s lamp—potential still there but hidden under layers of grime and years.

In Calvary’s case, the potential is hidden under endless fake flower arrangements and donated furniture.

So what would it be like, I thought, if a few of us downtown “big steeple” church pastors got together and figured out what it would take to FLIP THAT CHURCH?

That’s what we were hired to do, right Jim? We’re here to save the day, turn the tide, spiff things up, make everything better, turn a profit! We’ve been hired to FLIP THAT CHURCH!

So what’s it going to take?

By watching Flip That House I have already learned that if you want to make a profit selling your house you must do at least three things. First, kitchens and bathrooms must be modern, clean and new. Second, all appliances should be top-of-the-line. And third, the landscaping has to be immaculate.

I’ve only been on this church flipping adventure for a few years, but I have to say that those three guidelines seem to apply to a church as well. Come to think of it, I just got a message on my voice mail from someone complaining about how the bathrooms are being cleaned. (At least I think I’ve gotten all the fake flower arrangements off the counters!) I also learned this winter when the boiler was not working that more people attend church when the heat is on . . . so I would have to chalk that up as yet another example of these universally applicable axioms. And I think it was about my second month of work back in 2003 when a friend and I dragged electric hedge clippers down to the church and chopped down large portions of overgrown hedges. I can’t prove that this attempt at landscaping has positively impacted the church’s situation, but it is objectively observable that worship attendance has increased since that time.

Even though all of these things help, I suspect that flipping a church is not as formulaic as flipping a house. All of those facility improvements are necessary and good (the building committee of our recently completed 11 million dollar renovation project hopes so, anyway) but there’s something intangible that must find a home in the life of a congregation, take root and become firmly planted in the hearts of every person in the community for a real, genuine church flip to take place.

It sounds so obvious but let me tell you . . . that intangible is love.

And not just a mushy, air-kissing kind of love.

It has to be a real, gritty, stick-around-and-work-it-out kind of love. It has to be the kind of love that keeps us here, praying, contributing, investing, relating . . . because we believe the gospel of Jesus Christ can transform us, our community of faith, our world.

I am hoping for some colorful petunias in the front beds whenever it is that we decide on the landscaping for the new space. Personally, I think I would definitely attend a church with a pretty flower garden. But I’ve been around enough to know that a nice bunch of flowers (or really cool new bathrooms without fake flower arrangements) is not enough to flip this church. The future of these “big steeple” churches–the future of Calvary–depends on whether or not those folks who come by to smell the flowers stay for the business meetings (you know what I mean?).

The real question of whether or not we can flip this church will be answered right after we make our way through the flower garden into the community. If this is a place where people love each other and want to follow Jesus, well, then, this flip is going to turn a profit in the end.

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  • http://maryeb.typepad.com/weblog/

    This seems absolutley right to me – the love is crucial of course, but we are physical creatures and the physical matters too; to be truly, properly incarnational we need both elements in our churches and our lives. And well done with the artificial flowers…

  • revabi

    I am impressed with the “Flip that Church” post. I have been flipping a church for 5 years now, actually as one person puts it; “You’ve been raising the dead.”
    I am always on the lookout for Pastors who are actually “doing it”, instead of just being a consultant. Not that a consultant doesn’t have something to say that I don’t need to hear; but when you see someone doing it, and hear their experience it is inspiring. If it is okay with you, I would like to be able to link to your post on my blog. Thought about sending it to our Bishop, Bishop Will Willimon, but I really would want your okay to do that. So keep “flipping the church.”