Think Outside the Building
If life did allow for do-overs, mainline congregations probably wouldn't build the facilities they have inherited.
Many would build, but not long and tall worship spaces with fixed pews, stairs outside and inside, no parking, and never enough room for non-worship activities. They would build audience-style worship spaces with chairs and flexible configurations, large entry areas for fellowship, ramps outside and escalators inside, multiple meeting areas, zoned heating and cooling, and plenty of parking.
Some congregations wouldn't build at all, figuring that money invested in owning bricks-and-mortar could better be spent renting space as needed and putting resources into staff and program.
As it is, most mainline congregations feel duty-bound – morally responsible – to preserve the space they have inherited. Pity the new pastor who looks at a budget devoted to facilities that are used just a few hours a week and asks the question: “Do we need this space?”
Even when hard-to-heat, hard-to-use and expensive-to-maintain space is squeezing them, congregations tend to have too much history, emotion and human capital invested in their spaces to consider closing them and starting over.
This reluctance will put them at a disadvantage when competing with newer and more flexible congregations. Nevertheless, I think it is possible to minimize the negative consequences of burdensome facilities by learning to “think outside the building.”
Instead of asking their beloved facilities to do their ministry for them, see the human drama happening in their larger communities, imagine ways that people using facilities can help, but even more look at ways people doing ministry outside the building can make a difference. Focus on need and response, not on justifying the facilities budget.
Imagine this scenario: A congregation finds itself surrounded by several needs, such as repercussions of the Great Recession, fragmentation of families, violence at the local high school, and a city government that is broke.
What do you do?
You might send a delegation to the school principal to ask what help he needs. Hall monitors, alternative activities, peer counseling, family activities. Some congregations are actually “adopting” schools.
You might sponsor more family activities at church and make sure to include single-parent families and families in distress.
You might start support groups for people who have lost jobs, for people struggling with mortgage debt, for people who are trying to rethink their values.
You might ask the mayor what the faith community could do, other than send money, to help the city sustain a reasonable level of service.
The point is, with human needs pressing on you, your first thought wouldn't be, What can our facility do? but, What can we do? Some responses might benefit from space, some might not. Let your mission be your guide. Instead of letting bricks-and-mortar determine your actions, decide what needs to be done and then ask what contribution people can make and what contribution, if any, facilities can make.
I see two critical pluses in this approach. One is that your larger community will begin to see you as people who care and not as custodians of a museum.
The other is that when your members engage in mission they will be more likely to want worship, to bring friends to church, and to give generously. Deferred maintenance is a tough sell. The thrill of making a missional difference stirs hearts.