Denominational decline

Is there another way? Buildings, landlords, and ministry

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Rev. Mindi

My alma mater is selling its buildings, its beautiful campus, and relocating. At least, that is the plan. It made the news last week. The oldest graduate theological school in the United States is going to sell the campus.

I’ve written about churches and buildings before, our connection to a space, the power structures in place with building ownership, and of course, the fact that the church is not the building but the body of Christ.

Currently, I’m a part-time pastor of a tiny church, with a tiny church building, with a tiny campus on top of a hill, across the street from an elementary school. A building that is just shy of sixty years old. A building with asbestos in the ceiling and peeling paint and ripped brown carpet in the sanctuary.

I also serve with my husband at Open Gathering, a gathered community without a building. And I have a group of young adults in my tiny church that have started to form a new(ish) community we are, for now, calling “Good Neighbors.” One is renting space; the other meets at a local coffee shop/bar (which, actually, is a Lutheran ministry funded from the sale of a church building).

So what’s the big deal about buildings?

We get attached to space and places. Of course, I am going to mourn when my alma mater moves. Not only did I live there for three years, receive my Master of Divinity there, make some of the greatest friends of my life there and learn so much—I happened to meet my husband afterwards and we had our wedding reception there. The background of my wedding photos is the quad at Andover Newton.

But the school can continue in a different place and space. Indeed, for much of the arguing going on about whether online classes are not personal enough, let’s face reality: more and more people are going to school online. More and more of us are getting our core instruction that way. It doesn’t replace the practical—and I feel that a good seminary education that prepares us for ministry is going to get us out into the field more. Interning at local congregations. Participating in local ministries. Doing chaplaincy residencies at local hospitals and mission organizations. That’s what I received at Andover Newton that was most formative for my practical training.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s what we need for our congregations as well: more practical training in the field. Participating with other congregations in ministries in the community. Volunteering at our hospitals and homeless shelters. Visiting one another where we reside and where we work. I have noticed an increase in participation, from both congregation and community, every time we move an activity outside of the church building—Bible Studies in coffee shops. Pub Theology gatherings at a local bar. Caroling at the train station.

But there are buildings that house wonderful ministries as well. All too often, I have seen congregations hold on to the building by renting out every single space every single day of the week. The congregation becomes a landlord. They are concerned about wear and tear on the building but also how much income is coming in.

Our tiny church building houses four congregations. Four! Our building is in use every single day of the week—for worship, for Bible study, for prayer gatherings, for a Christian preschool in the morning and an After-School tutoring program that we run in the afternoon. We also have had Vacation Bible School, as well as a Social Skills Summer day camp for students with disabilities and their typically-developing peers.  A few years ago we planted our first Community Organic Garden plot, and we hope to expand. One thing I have noticed: when we stop worrying about what's going to happen to us, and start focusing on what God is doing through us, we are open to more possibilities.

Sure, we face the same issues. And maybe we’re kidding ourselves by holding on as long as we can. But the difference may be seeking what is the intention for the space we are in. Is it so we can just keep going? Is our renting to others just to sustain us? Or is it possible to be open to other ministries and missions and giving space for them to flourish? What is God’s intention for us? And ultimately, we do have to ask the question: is building ownership the only way to do this?

It's hard to begin to think of letting go of a place where you've had your wedding, had your child dedicated or baptized, or where your parent's funeral was held. It's hard to not have an attachment to that space, and it is a grieving process.

In my congregation, we are asking some of the hard questions now, and we aren’t sure exactly where we are going. But we are trusting the Holy Spirit. I pray that the leaders at Andover Newton are doing the same. For the rest of us in traditional churches with aging buildings, what is the Spirit calling you do to? Because I’m sure when you agreed to join in membership, or if you’ve been there since Sunday School days, that God wasn’t calling you to be a landlord of the church building. God is calling you into ministry.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Mindi and JC, May 28th, 2005. Reception at Noyes Hall at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

Seth Godin, Resilience and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

By Julie Richardson Brown

I don’t remember when I first stumbled upon Seth Godin’s blog. I do know that for some time I’d heard his name, knew his work (most notably Tribes) and had sloughed him off as just another babbling voice claiming to have The Answer to any company’s, entrepreneur’s or organizational leader’s cry of “What do we do now?”

I’ve read about moving cheese and making it stick and where the tipping point is and...blah, blah, blah. And while all sorts of writers have made all sorts of claims on what it means to be a leader, what it means to be a brave visionary, what it means to navigate new ideas and be a successful “change agent,” I’ve yet to see more than a handful of those in church leadership positions (lay, ordained, or otherwise; local church, various judicatory levels, or otherwise) use these secular world notions applied to church in a way that makes much sense or effects transformation. So it all just winds up being an impressive bookshelf lineup.

Until now. I really believe that Mr. Godin’s got stuff to say that matters--just about every day. And I’ve considered starting an online clergy discussion group to discuss his writing and his work in terms of, “What might this have to say to us, Church?”

And then the post on Seth’s Blog for this morning, Friday, April 26th, popped up in my inbox andJesusJosephMaryPatrickandALLtheSaints! I thought, “This is briliant! And my church that I love (and daily struggle with) so needs to hear this!”

It’s about resilience, people (“the ability to shift and respond to change/the ability to survive and thrive in the face of change” as Godin defines it). I call resilience what it means to hold on, rise above, move forward and emerge transformed in the midst of the most rapidly changing social, religious and technological landscape that the world (and, by inclusion, the Church) has ever known.

As the CC (DOC) continues to ride the rough waters of said landscape, with declining budgets, theological disagreement and a general and pervasive fear of “What’s next and how will we get there?” as massive boulders along the way, it seems like maybe this--resilience--is something we might do well to think about in new ways.

Lucky us. Seth did it for us.

The choice, he writes, is “build something perfect for today, or build something that lasts,” because, “perfect today no longer means perfect forever.” And then he offers four approaches to resilience. I’ll let you read about them in full if you choose to do so here, but what I want to focus on is the first two of the approaches, “Don’t Need It” and “Invest in a Network.”

Godin ranks these as the two braver approaches--in churchy language we might say “the two more prophetic approaches.”

We don’t need--any more--enormous buildings, top-heavy structures/leadership or processes of being that, far too often, aren’t much more than a series of hoops to jump through. We don’t need an “in crowd” (Disciples Royalty, as some of us snarkier ones say), and we don’t need General Assemblies that are barely--if at all--affordable for the vast majority of our churches and membership (and so, by default, a good number of voices get left out).

What we need is space for grace to happen. What we need is a true inclusion of all people, all gifts and all theological viewpoints. What we need is open and honest and non-gatekeeping accountability in our education, commissioning, ordination and Search and Call processes. What we need is a willingness to let go of job titles that no longer make sense and funding streams we all fight over and territories (geographical, theological and philosophical) that we try desperately to protect.

I realize that I’m using broad strokes here, and I know that behind what I write are real people and real lives and real jobs at stake. Believe me, I get it. But we cannot hold on to and hide behind a crumbling way of being (no matter how good it once was) in hopes that we’ll get it stabilized enough to stay there--when what we ought to be doing is clearing the rubble so that something new can be built.

And we ought to be doing this building together, or, as Godin would say, “investing in networks” as we do. “When your neighbor can lend you what you need, it's far easier to survive losing what you've got,” he posits (and correctly).

Somewhere along the way we People of the Chalice have forgotten what it means to live this life and faith together. The result is a lack of institutional trust, policies that force diversity (often, in my opinion, falsely) as opposed to honestly loving, respecting and welcoming one another, and competition for what little money exists, or, worse, a lack of understanding about why the Disciples Mission Fund really does matter (even if how it is collected and dispersed might need a little work).

It’s one of the very worst byproducts of fear of change--a desperate effort to cling to our own corner of the world so that we can maintain some pale sense of security.

The stories of our faith teach us differently. Ruth and Esther did not become heroes of our faith because they did a great job maintaining the status quo. And not a single one of us, I’d wager, would, today, lift up King David as a model of spiritual leadership. But God used him. And most of our churches would just as soon judge a pregnant teenager as we would think that maybe she might be carrying the Son of God. And rarely do we follow Jesus well enough to live out of a sense of abundance (you know...more than enough loaves and fishes), because too often we’re bemoaning scarcity.

My friends and colleagues, we can do better. And please know, I do not pretend to have all the answers, but there is not a single issue I have named here that I am not willing to work with others on towards solutions. One of the worst traits of church people is a tendency to name all that’s wrong and yet not be willing to be part of effecting change. So let’s not even go there.

Let’s be prophetic. Brave. Let’s take a page from the playbooks of our ancestors in the faith, even if it means wandering in the desert for a while, so that we can find a new Canaan and there settle, at least for a while, giving thanks as we do for the God who got us this far in the first place.

A God who, in fact, has given us all that way we need to enter into a new way of being.

May we be resilient enough to trust that same God to walk with us, among us, and through us all along the way.

Read Julie regularly at

‘No Religion’ on the Rise: 19.6% Have No Religious Affiliation - Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

If you continue to labor under the misapprehension that a significant shift is underway when it comes to age demographics and religion, it's time to wake up.  Continuing to lay the decline of emerging generations in commitment to Christianity at the feet of "slacker" theory—in which young people are adjudged merely lazy—is itself an exercise in laziness.  Young people are leaving the church on purpose.  We would do better to ask why they're leaving than offering excuses that fail to give them a reason to stay.

Here's an excerpt from the Pew Forum Report:

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.4 A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

These generational differences are consistent with other signs of a gradual softening of religious commitment among some (though by no means all) Americans in recent decades. Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the last 10 years, for example, find modest growth in the number of people who say they seldom or never attend religious services, as well as a declining number who say they never doubt the existence of God.