The Wrong Kind of Holy

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?

4 responses to “The Wrong Kind of Holy

  1. Hi Gail,
    The church Jim and I serve in Fond du Lac is one of the churches you describe in the blog — urban, serving the poor, leaking. Ours is a blue collar, low-to-moderate income congregation that was once 3500 people and now has an active membership of less than 400. Last year, we gave away 750 bags of groceries from our food pantry. We host Loaves and Fishes, a free supper program, twice a week. We help folks with rent and utility bills. We host a neighborhood advocacy group which has made significant strides in the past few years toward safety and health in our area. We do this in a building which springs a new leak weekly. We had to put bookcases in front of two bathrooms because we can’t afford to fix the toilets and we are trying to hide the rooms. To redo the problematic parts of our building would cost $100,000 in asbestos abatement alone. We believe we have a viable, even urgent, ministry here. But we ask daily “How can we continue in this colander of a building?” We can’t even afford to tear it down! Thanks for the blog. It reminded me that others struggle with similar issues and that those who don’t experience these things for themselves can be empathetic.

  2. Jenny, it sounds like your church is doing vital ministry. I wish cities would say, “You don’t have to abide by building codes if you can prove you are an asset to the community”. Personally, I would rather see effective ministry performed out of a “colander” than the “frozen chosen” meeting in an immaculate worship space. But the reality for leaders is that we find ourselves worrying about how things will get fixed, when it is people we should really be focusing on. Thank you for your comments and the faithful ministry you are doing.

  3. The difficulty I find is an emotional one. People at Grace are really emotionally attached to this building and while it is not falling apart quite yet, the thought of being Grace church anywhere else than this building with the “pretty” windows would be traumatic, to understate the issue.

    My challenge is, how do you wean a congregation from it’s building? I do believe that the building must serve the ministry and not the other way around, and if it doesn’t, the ministry needs to seek a new place where the ministry can continue and grow, not necessarily in numbers, but in service.

    Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis is an example. Currently they are meeting in what was an old Lutheran church (I think). Right now it is meeting the needs of the ministry performed by and through Solomon’s Porch but I am quite certain that Doug Paggitt and Tony Jones and their fellow “Porchers” would not hesitate to move to a different space if the old “Lutheran” church no longer enhanced their discipleship.

    It’s a perplexing issue. One that I am very hesitant to breach yet. We shall see.

  4. Wayne, interesting that you bring up Solomon’s Porch. I spoke to Doug about that issue a year or so ago. They originally met in rented space in a different neighborhood, but their landlord asked them to move after a few years and they found it difficult to re-locate because they wanted to have a connection and commitment to a neighborhood. Now they meet in an old Methodist church still owned by the UMC. They would like to buy, but he says the UMC has set the price too high. Doug says he no longer ascribes to the “never buy property” line of thinking because they want to commit themselves to a community and be rooted now. (They started an outreach to a nearby group home, I think) I find it interesting that the UMC is holding out for a higher price on the building. This speaks to two issues: One: what does it mean to be a church without a “neighborhood”–is that honorable? And two: ecumenically and between churches, can we find the capacity to do what is right for each other, or are we gonna stay stuck in “our property” vs “your property”, when we could view is as “God’s property”? As to how to wean your members off their building, I would see keep stressing that the building is an “arm” of the mission effort and look for ways to use it that way. Always ask, What does God want us to do with the ministry first, and with the building second.

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