I try to avoid Hallmark movies, with their story lines that drip sap. But last night I stumbled upon the Mitch Albom TV movie based on his best selling book “Have A Little Faith“. It’s about Albom’s relationships with a rabbi and a Pentecostal minister. I came in at the tail end but stayed because one of the characters in this story is a real church building: the grand Trumbell Avenue United Presbyterian Church in Detroit, an architectural masterpiece that deteriorated after its first congregation either moved or closed. It was sold or given to Pilgrim Church, a Pentecostal congregation that runs a ministry for the homeless called I Am My Brother’s Keeper, out of the building.
Albom tells how the church had a hole in the roof so large that plastic sheeting had to be hung up to keep the snow out. Pieces of the plaster ceiling would routinely fall on worshipers. But the congregation was steadfast in believing that their ministry belonged in that location, despite the building’s condition. In the end, Albom and others publicized the plight of the church and $80,000 was raised to repair the roof.
Albom’s story is a touching one, but it casts a small light on a bigger problem. In urban centers around the country, large churches have been abandoned by the European-American congregations that built them and sold or given to ethnic churches who are ill equipped financially to care for them. While these congregations’ ministries are life blood to their communities, the buildings, once beautiful, are financial sink holes.
I visited one such church. Denominational leaders had pointed it out to me as a success story: after a white congregation had been forced to close its doors, the denomination gave the building to a new church development in the neighborhood, which was now African-American. Everyone celebrated this new congregation born out of the death of an old one.
But when I visited a couple years after their opening, I found the church was a cavern of structural problems. Puddles of water collected on the floor where rain had seeped in. A generous congregation in another city had just donated $50,000 to replace the young church’s boiler. I wonder, will the money and effort poured into this building pay off somehow? Or has its denomination simply passed an eroding structure on to a faith community that is just as fragile as its predecessors?
They say there is no free lunch, and a free church building can be a blessing or a curse. My prayer is that some of these beautiful structures can be saved and made useful for new congregations. But I would caution against trying to do effective ministry using buildings that are the wrong kind of “holy”.
The good news in Albom’s story is that he started a non-profit organization to fund building repair specifically for churches that are serving the homeless. You can learn more about it here.
What do you think God wants for these lovely old buildings and the fragile people living in their shadows?