The Wall Street Journal recently reported on another church having difficulty selling its building because of resistance from a preservation group. This time the city is Memphis, and the church is 99 year old Union Avenue Methodist Church. The 40 member congregation voted 18 months ago to sell its property to the CVS Corporation, which plans to demolish the building and build a pharmacy on the site.
The Journal’s Timothy W. Martin did a good job of laying out both sides of this debate, which is being waged in many downtowns around the country. The congregation was overwhelmed by the cost of maintaining its facility. They wanted to merge with another church and use the proceeds of the sale to engage in a more active mission to the surrounding community.
But the preservation group wants to maintain buildings that offer a sense of history, and understandably doesn’t want to see the neighborhood overrun by chain stores.
Martin points to the trend in other cities as well: “In Haverhill, Mass., residents and the city’s historic society helped block the sale of a 163-year old Armenian Apostolic church to a developer who planned to raze it and build a Burger King. Walgreen Co. recently built stores on former church sites in New York and Kentucky. Rite Aid Corp. opened a location in 2008 at the site of a former Protestant church in Pennsylvania.”
Think about it: would you rather have a church or a Burger King next door to your house?
Think about this: which one would you walk into more often?
This conflict forces us into one of the most challenging questions faced by declining congregations: what is the Church? It is a group of people; it is a mission inherited from Christ; it is the visible manifestation of an invisible Kingdom. In Jesus’ time, it was never a building. But for many generations, it has been a physical sanctuary, a symbolic gathering place for the community, a resting place for the weary, and a refuge for the vulnerable.
What does it do to our image of the Church to see those sanctuaries fall?
And what is God’s image of the Church?
I recall the words of a spiritual I love to sing:
I am a pilgrim and a stranger,
traveling through this wearisome land.
I’ve got a home in that yonder city, good Lord,
And it’s not made, not made by hand.
You can read the Wall St. Journal article here. Thanks to my husband Charles for weeding this one out for me!