It’s More than a Building

May 27, 2020

By Mike Glenn

I’m a sucker for old church buildings. I love finding sanctuaries that were built in the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, going inside, and just sitting down. There is something holy about the architecture, the stained glass windows, and the craftsmanship we can’t seem to replicate in our post-modern construction. These days, everything is pre-fabricated, cost-effective, and multi-purpose. There’s nothing in our modern facilities testifying to the extravagance of worship or the gloriousness of our God.

Recently, if you’ve been in one new church, you’ve been in them all.

Knowing this, you might understand why I get so upset when I see a church building go up for sale. Of course, there are times when selling church property makes sense for a congregation. The growth of a city makes the property worth many times over what the congregation paid for the property. I’ve seen property sold, another property bought, and a new building built with no new money required from the congregation.

It happens.

But not much.

Most of the time, it’s a congregation that has dwindled down to a handful of dedicated members who can no longer afford to maintain their facility and when, approached by a developer, see a way to salvage the memory of the church by investing the profits of the sale into various ministries and mission efforts.

So, the church building is sold and turned into a restaurant, a condo, or an office building. In a few months, the newspaper will run an article on how some local architect redid the church building for their new clients, making the stained glass windows a focal point of one of the rooms. It will be a beautiful space.

And it will break my heart.

There could still be a church there. In fact, there could be a viable and creative congregation making a kingdom difference in that community – if there had only been a conversation with someone with a little faithful imagination.

Remember, the building is being sold by a group of people who are sure no one will come, and being bought by a group of people who are sure people will come IF THERE IS SOMETHING DIFFERENT IN THE BUILDING.

Why can’t a church be what’s different in the building?

Most of the time, there are still a lot of people around the building. It’s just not the same people the church was reaching in its heyday. The church may have been a very successful Caucasian church at one time. Now, the white community has either died out or moved out and the church is surrounded by a Hispanic community. An African-American church could be  surrounded by Kurdish communities, and a blue-collar suburb could now be transitioning to a hipster community.

What if, after a thorough study of the changing demographics, a strategy could be put in place to reach the new communities? What if a staff was hired and put in the church, not to serve the existing members, but to reach those in the surrounding community?

At Brentwood Baptist Church, we have found this to be a very effective strategy. There are several reasons that make this work.

First, you’re getting a facility for nickels on the dollar. Most of the time, the buildings will require some kind of major repair (new heating units, new sound and lighting systems), but even with that, the cost of restoring the facility is far less than new construction.

Second, you don’t have to go through zoning or deal with city regulations. Because a church is already on the property, usually a church can stay on the property. This can save months of frustrating bureaucratic red tape. Besides, the community is usually glad to see the new church coming in because the property is being upgraded.

Third, most of the time, the current church is excited to know ministry will continue in their facility and the faith of the founding members can be honored and celebrated. Sure, this ministry will look differently than many will have envisioned, but having a building come alive again with laughing children and life-transforming ministry excites many transitioning congregations.

Lastly, having a staff that looks like the neighborhood and understands the culture of the surrounding community creates instant inroads into ministry, missions, and evangelism. We’ve found it’s not unusual for a repurposed congregation to quickly be in more than one service.

Like I said at the beginning of this article, I’m sure there are times when selling a church facility makes sense for a congregation. Having said that, I will still admit it breaks my heart when I see a church facility for sale. There are still so many possibilities, so many people to reach.

And after all, we believe in resurrections – both of people and churches

Mike Glenn has served as the senior pastor at Brentwood Baptist since 1991. Under his leadership, the church has grown to a membership of over 10,000. He is married to Jeannie, and they have twin sons, two daughters-in-law, and two granddaughters. He writes at MikeGlennOnline.com and is a frequent contributor for the Jesus Creed blog on Patheos.com. You can follow Mike on Twitter @mikeglenn.

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7 Comments

  • Walter Griffen says on

    I agree. I grew up in a beautiful church with 12′ tall stained glass windows that taught me Jesus was the Alpha & The Omega, and “Behold, I stand at the door and knock…” and Michael, the Arch-angel sounding the trumpet call. There was a pipe organ that reverberated in my chest when we robustly sang along with the choir, “Oh Lord, my God, when I, in awesome wonder….!”
    I am 66 years old now. The church building still exists and still has a pastor, but is more of a community food pantry than a house of worship. I recall us going through a generation or two (GenX or GenY or Gen???) who spoke smack against the “Builder Generation,” and pooh-poohed the idea of spending elaborate amounts of money on that which is not bread. However, I shall always remember the glorious uplifting of my spirit and the longing in my heart for Sunday morning worship. It was a body, mind, and soul experience that is lost to the generations. It seems in recent times we have dummied down on everything; education, morality, patriotism, the Word of God, and worship. I recall someone once saying it’s a fool who knows the cost of everything, but the value of nothing. Oh, that we might recapture in the upcoming generations the awe-inspiring mystery of our God and bow before Him in meekness and in fear!

  • James Mbuthia says on

    If only people could take time to wait on God to give them direction.These days people do the work of God as their work, forgetting that we are only servants, who should get direction from the Master. they do the work of God as themselves not as God’s vessels who should hear from the Master and get what is in His heart concerning the church. (Jeremiah 23:22 “But if they had stood in My counsel, and had caused My people to hear My words,then the would have turned them from their evil ways and from the evil of their doing”. NKJV). Would our Lord Jesus Christ direct His sanctuary to be sold out and converted to something else?

    • Robin G Jordan says on

      In Isaiah 55:8-9 we read, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.
      ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thought’ than your thoughts.'” This passage keeps me from presuming that I know what God might or might not do. God is not bound to our way of thinking nor is he bound to our way of doing things. God permitted the Romans to sack Jerusalem and destroy Herod’s Temple, the last Temple that the Jews had raised in honor of him. Where are the seven churches of the Revelation to John, whose candles our Lord said that he would take away if they did not repent. Where are the buildings in which they worshiped. They are gone. The buildings in which they worshiped put to secular use and then torn down long, long ago. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that God would permit the sale of a church building and its conversion to secular use if it served his purposes. Who are we to fathom God’s purposes? The temple of the Holy Spirit to which the apostle Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 6: 19 is not a building but ourselves. God in the person of the Holy Spirit indwells us. He occupies our innermost being. If we have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is with us irrespective of where we worship–in a building or outdoors. It is the Holy Spirit that unites us to our Lord and to each other in the Body of Christ. God is also omnipresent so he is even present to those who do not yet believe in our Lord, who have not yet experienced the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. We may put too much value on church buildings as we do all earthly things. However, the Church of our Lord has existed and does exist without buildings set apart for his worship. As he has promised, “where two or three gather in my name, I will be in the midst of them.” As we go about the task of making disciples of all peoples, has he not also promised to be with us to the end of time? Perhaps it is something about human beings that we may need a place to meet God but God does not need a place to meet us. This is something that we should never lose sight of lest we make an idol of our church buildings. In the Old Testament we read over and over again that what matters to God is not that we trample the courts of his Temple but we live our lives in obedience to God–what is so beautifully summarized in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

  • Gene Veltkamp says on

    Mike,
    I was in a rural church, in a rural county of about 7000 people total, so really rural, and was a member of a church that had less than 100 active members, but on Easter and Christmas, the church would fill up as people who had left the community would make their semi annual pilgrimage back to the church.

    About 5 years ago, the church became vacant, due to a problem with the pastor, so I was part of the a pastoral search committee, and we were tasked with the finding a vibrant pastor. It took almost 2 years, but we found a vibrant, dynamic pastor that had the skills of reaching kids, because of his life experiences growing up, and was very dynamic off the pulpit with very biblical sermons. One of his lesser skills, if I might call it that was visiting the elderly, as that was not his skill, so we told the leadership of the church that they would have to step up and assist the pastor in that area of leadership.

    The pastors skills included having a Ph.D. in racial reconciliation/denominational reconciliation, and a masters degree in clinical psychology. He was also a pastor for almost 25 years when he accepted the call to come to the community. He had a heart for growing the church and was reaching out to helping at risk kids, those who were falling through the cracks of society, depression, etc. Within the first 18 months of the ministry, in a small town of 100 people, the pastor was able to grow the church by 30 families, making attendance of over 100 people on a Average Sunday, and almost 200 on the two holidays that I mentioned previously. He also was making serious headway into calling those who had ben hurt by the church previously, and were considering coming back to the church.

    The church had received a bequest of over $200,000 from a former member of the church. When it came time to give the pastor a raise, many of the people in the church felt that the pastor should not receive the raise, as he came in at the higher end of what the church could afford to pay. The same people, who before the pastor came were lamenting the fact that the church was sick, and that the last person who died would be in charge of turning the lights off, suddenly were worried that the church was growing to fast, and that we would not be able to afford the pastor’s salary. We would run out of money, and then we would be in a worse position than before.

    Needless to say, the pastor left, after having been offended with the church leaderships response. He was asking for an additional $10,000 per year as a salary, to help pay for continuing education, and the church said no. Within 6 months, the church was down to the 30 to 40 people prior to the arrival of the pastor. The chairman of the finance presented a budget to the church for the past year that essentially said not to look for a new pastor, and to let an interim pastor lead until the church dies. They have made a decision to coast on the bequest, but because they believe that they know everybody, that there is no hope that the church will grow. It is either that or the people in power were unwilling to let new people take over running the church.

    The church doesn’t know it, but it is dying from a human perspective. the best thing that I think could happen with the church is that they would disband, and sell the church to another group that is interested in evangelism. In effect, they chased away the pastor who was helping the church to grow, but they did not or were not willing to see the changes that would be required to be made to keep the growth constant. It is my opinion that as the church grows, that God Himself will see to it that the church stays vibrant. It is His church, not ours.

    Thanks for listening.

  • DeAnne G Henderson says on

    I wish our church could do this. We are exactly what you described: once a thriving Caucasian church, now we look nothing like the community. Our leadership consists of one person: the pastor. He denies there is anything wrong. There are about 10 members, the youngest being in his 40’s, an unmarried male. There are two men besides the pastor. There are wonderful facilities that are just deteriorating and unused, yet the bills still get paid. The church is in its death throes, yet no one seems to want to get out of their comfort zone to address the issue. I’ve heard so many times, “We must still be here for a reason.” It makes me, a lifelong member, sad to have my suggestions devalued since “Nothing is wrong.” It makes me sad for the building which would take considerable resources to repair and refurbish, yet it could be done. Please pray for our church. I don’t want it to die. I would be more than happy to help with community outreach, yet it is an almost racial good-ol’-boy mentality that keeps telling me things are fine.

  • Robin G Jordan says on

    Mike, I personally have mixed feelings about church buildings. I have been involved in planting and pioneering new churches on and off since infancy. My mother and my grandparents were involved in a church plant when I was a baby. The congregation initially met in Quonset hut. It would build a mission hall–essentially a large commons room with an adjoining kitchen, restrooms, and storage space, which was used for community engagement (e.g., public meetings, community organizations, etc.) as well as worship and other church activities. Later it was incorporated into a more conventional church building complex with a sanctuary and classrooms. I have seen new congregations become so obsessed with a building that its construction completely changed the worship, ministry and life the ministry of the church. I have seen vigorous growing congregations lose their missionary zeal once they moved into the first building of their own. I have also seen older congregations where the building didn’t serve the church. The church served the building.

    A lot of older church buildings (and some new ones) are being put up for sale. Some of these buildings might serve a new congregations. Others, however, might prove to be a trap–yes, a trap–for new congregations. Buildings have a way of shaping the ministry of a church. I sometimes preach and lead worship at a small church in a neighboring community. The congregation bought a building in that community because it was for sale and the pastor at the time lived a block away from the building. Only a handful of the people in the congregation, however, lived in the community. Most of the congregation lived elsewhere. Once the congregation moved into the building, it hit a plateau and then went into decline. It has gone through several pastors and for at least five years has had no pastor. The building proved a trap for this congregation. At one point the congregation considered moving the church the community where most of the members of the congregation lived but decided against the move. Why? It didn’t want to give up the building.

    A lot of older church buildings were not constructed to serve the needs of a twenty-first century church. They reflect a bygone era’s ideas of church. Except for church buildings which have historical value, a new congregation might do better to purchase the property on which an older building stands and raze the building if the property had enough space for a more functional building that meets the needs of the congregation.

    In the case of historical land marks local associations and other networks of churches might buy the building and the property and convert it to a secular use that serves the community and fosters good will with the community. Large church building complexes have been converted into residential living communities for the elderly and the disabled. At the same time new congregations might be allowed to use these facilities when they are first launched.

  • Very good post and focus!