Rev. David Schoen works in the area of church vitality for the United Church of Christ. In his Congregational Vitality Newsletter he wrote recently that an increasing number of congregations wonder what to do with their buildings when the building no longer matches up with the mission of the church.
He says, “Older generations in our churches…tend to be attached to buildings, sanctuaries, and places. Their spiritual journey is a journey of place in which they identify with a place that has significant meaning for their faith. Anyone younger than most baby boomers is on a different spiritual journey. What is important to younger spiritual seekers and disciples is relationship. They are on a journey defined by building relationships and being engaged in missionally driven congregations. So place and facilities don’t matter so much to new generations or disciples – they are most concerned about the community and the mission of a congregation.”
His remarks may be a broad generalization, but they remind me of churches I’m acquainted with that give much of their energy and attention to their beloved, historic buildings. The facilities may be in great shape and beautiful to look at, but their dwindling congregations have little time for outreach and mission after they are done repairing windows and tuckpointing the brick.
By contrast, Schoen offers examples of younger churches using new kinds of worship space like retrofitted commercial or rented space. They are growing, not through “bricks, butts and budgets” (as one of my interviewees put it), but through souls bonding to one another in Christian community.
Nevertheless, one emergent church I’m aware of began by renting and has since attempted to buy a building. The pastor says they have already been forced to move once by landlords, and now he doesn’t want to have to cut ties with another neighborhood. They want to stake a claim, to be accountable to a community.
Older Christians must keep in mind that our attachment to our beloved holy places may not be inherited by the next generation. Younger Christians might consider how we can root ourselves in a mission field, whether we own or rent.
As Rev. Schoen reminds us, either way, it is the mission that must define where, how and why we gather, not the building.
But of course the question remains: what happens to the buildings…?