Zoning for a New Model of Church

If you’ve read this blog much, you might have gathered that I’m pretty conflicted about church buildings.  They are the glory and downfall of today’s church.  They are often beautiful, historic buildings; they represent God’s presence in communities where that presence is sorely needed.   They provide gathering and education space, and a respite for the eye amid the banality of big box stores, industrial parks and cold office towers.

But, darn it, they are so expensive to keep open!  With their suspicious wiring, high ceilings and leaky windows, their maintenance is more than the average shrinking congregation can handle.

Do you ever wish your little congregation could just meet in a cozy space with a fireplace and a tiny rent payment?

Some people say the future of the church is in small group gatherings, often in homes.  I don’t just mean house churches; small groups are also part of many large church ministries, where groups gather in homes to foster more intimate spiritual growth. I’ve often wished I could be part of a church that had a small group ministry.  And I’ve heard of new chuch developments meeting in homes and schools without the encumbrance of a mortgage payment.

But there is a hitch to the fantasy of being the church without a building.  Here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal by Sarah Pulliam Bailey (online editor of Christianity Today) about municipal zoning codes getting in the way of home church gatherings.  Some communities actually have ordinances that require groups of 4 or more to get a permit to hold a group meeting in a home.  (This means no dinner parties without Big Brother’s permission, I guess!)

I don’t think this is a major threat to most small groups, but it does beg the question: if we give up our church buildings, then what?  What new vulnerability are we exposed to?

What do you think?  Are big, beautiful buildings in the church’s future?  Or are we retreating back to an early church model of small gatherings?  And is it possible that we will become disenfranchised by our loss of property?

5 responses to “Zoning for a New Model of Church

  1. As always, love your writing! Must chuckle as I’m finishing attempting to decorate with lights for the second time in our 100 year history(!) Neighbors enjoy it saying, “Gee, there’s someone home!”

    The building is already on registers listing historical significance, but not officially. In hopes of securing grants, and also to slow demolition, (in the event of a seizure or sale), do you know of any stories or advice from those who have made this move to become historically registered and regretted it?

    Retreating to our homes is an unfortunate choice. Limiting our choices for diverse social interaction has already been forced on many of us during these hard economic times. Nesting with cable “info” entertainment, and the denial of the right to assembly without prior permission leaves us divided and cowed.

  2. Ginger, I wrote a post on this called “From Pews to Prescriptions” in February, 2011. If you search back under “church buildings” you will find it. It’s about churches who were prohibited by their municipalities from demolishing their buildings because of their historic value. I hope you mean you are decorating your church with lights. In your neighborhood, you should have luminarias for Christmas Eve, if they allow them! I was thinking today how drab the world looks (no snow here) during the day, but at night, everyone turns on their Christmas light and ordinary places become magical. Maybe it’s that way for a little 100 year old church–the people who walk in darkness will see a great light! P.S. Please let me know if you receive this by e-mail; I don’t know if the reply on my site works. Thanks for writing! Merry Christmas and many blessings to you and Scott!

    • Yes, decorating with lights… It does make walking around the neighborhood after dark more “enlightening”. I’d be afraid of fire danger with luminarias here…tho they are enchanting!

      I’ll check out your historical building section, many thanks! Odd motivation, but I want to prevent ~any~ group from being able to demolish the building.

  3. Hi Gail,

    What you said about the cost of maintaining a building is so true when the burden is shouldered by a small congregation.

    Just as home ownership may not be the answer for families with limited or uncertain income, building ownership should probably not be the focus of a small congregation. Takes the focus away from Worship, Stewardship and Fellowship. As I recall, the focus on Property and Owning ‘Stuff’ was one of the issues that early protestants used to question the role of the Roman Catholic Church.

    Create for yourself a Beautiful Day,


  4. Hey, Mark, glad you found my blog! Ownership of “stuff” was also an issue in the early church (Acts 2: 43-54). You know more about Catholic history than I do. At the same time, many churches feel that staking a claim in a neighborhood is important and the best way to do that is buy purchasing property. One church I know of rented space, then got kicked out and had to connect with a new neighborhood. Back in Jeremiah, the prophet was called to purchase a peice of property in what was, essentially, a war zone after the Babylonians overthrew Jerusalem. God wanted people to see that their city’s future was worth investing in, despite the fallen state it was in. I think many urban churches feel that way as they try to serve the urban poor. So there is no easy answer, but I agree that property ownership should not be a goal in and of itself–unless it helps fulfill the mission! Blessings to you!

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