Is Church a Waste of Space?

America is littered with churches—ranging architecturally from
multi-million dollar “campuses,” replete with huge auditoriums, meeting
halls, and classrooms to humbler edifices with little more than a
sanctuary and an office. However, what nearly all of them have in common
is that a majority of their space sits dark and vacant six days of the
week.
Now, many of these churches have thriving ministries in the
community, doing excellent work with the poor and heartbroken. So why
does the empty space matter, if ministry happens regardless? First,
because that space is uniquely suited to work that too rarely occurs in
church communities today, but more simply, because empty auditoriums
hulking beside highways are dismal intimations that a church chiefly
desires to fill thousands of seats every Sunday for an inspirational set
of laser-drenched praise songs. How can we redeem our buildings,
gargantuan or otherwise? Here are a few ideas our local faith
congregations should consider adopting, ones that will truly transform
their cities:

Language / Vocational / Remedial Classes

With rooms sitting empty every night
of the week, there would plenty of space in most churches for volunteers
to lead classes in Spanish, Mandarin, or koine Greek, or in technical
and life-skills—computer proficiency, literacy, algebra, sewing, etc. In
an effort to build—rather than merely inhabit—culture, groups could
read Dante, Flannery O’Connor, or St. Augustine; study painting or music
or film; engage and debate political controversies. Imago Dei Church in
Portland, OR offers a possible model: their congregation has set aside
space for an “Arts Loft,” which provides “a working
studio and part-time gallery,” and “also provides artists with a
flexible space for small gatherings, shows, and throwing paint around.
The Loft's flatbed scanner and 18"x22" giclee printer are also available
for community use, by arrangement.”  

Office Space for Fledgling Charities

How many times have you and your friends mused about founding a
charitable organization? How many do you know who actually made the leap
and started something? Churches could dramatically lower the barriers
to entry for creative individuals by providing free or discounted space
in which to work and meet. This is particularly true in urban areas,
where the only alternatives to renting expensive office space are
crowded apartments and coffee shops. In today’s media-driven world,
churches could provide these groups an additional boon by offering the
use of their technological resources (expensive design programs and
video-editing software spring to mind). Even churches that rent their
offices are pioneering this collaboration: for months, Trinity Grace
Church in New York City shared its cramped Clinton walk-up with the
founders of Restore NYC, a group devoted to rescuing and rehabilitating
sex-trafficked women in New York. Restore founder Faith Huckel said, “I
could not have developed this organization without the help and support
of Trinity Grace Church …Today we serve 23 women (mostly from China and
Korea).”

Community Development 

Whether in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, Karl
Barth and the Barmen Declaration, or Dorothy Day and the Catholic
Worker, the Church has a rich twentieth-century heritage of political
engagement. Dr. Robert Carle, author of Signs of Hope in the City,
describes the power of organization: “If an individual contacts a
politician to complain about subway lighting, he’s not going to get very
far. But if he calls as a representative of a coalition of 20.000
church members, he has a lot of clout.” However, Carle cautions that
churches should not try to duplicate the methods of 50’s and 60’s
activism, calling them an “obsolete model” for political change in
communities that primarily need economic development. Instead, he points
to the rising tide of urban church organizations—such as Harlem
Congregations for Community Improvement, or South Bronx Churches—that
have begun providing jobs, affordable housing, and low-interest loans.
Some create charter schools, or pool resources to lend to those without
credit. “Many people use this money to start businesses in their homes,”
says Carle, “cooking food in their apartments and selling it on the
streets. Some even fill a basement with water and raise fish to sell
commercially.”

The first step toward redeeming these empty buildings is a serious,
imaginative, and church-wide conversation. So, excited, frustrated
church member, be bold in making this a subject of serious discussion
among your friends and family. If you have an idea for how to put the
church building to use, advocate for it with your church leaders, and be
specific—your request for space will meet a kinder reception if you can
explain to your pastor exactly what you would do, who might join you,
how you plan to cover expenses, and what you need from the church.

Imagine that on a typical Thursday morning at your church, a group
of parishioners came and went throughout the day alongside the staff: a
man who manages a Barnes and Noble at night raising funds for flood
victims in India, a woman working to build a network of support for poor
single mothers, a group of college students publishing an upstart
literary journal. That evening, a group of thirty or so gathers in an
activities hall to process applications from townsfolk for micro-loans.
In other parts of the building, a lawyer volunteers time helping
homeowners navigate re-financing, foreclosure, and bankruptcy; a Chinese
engineer teaches would-be missionaries to speak Mandarin; and a strange
mixture of young and old, rich and poor reads and discusses Paradise
Lost
. This scenario is admittedly improbable, but it is far from
impossible, if gifted Christians learn to pool their talents and
resources for the work of grace in their communities.

This article originally appeared as a column on relevantmagazine.com.

6 Comments

84,970

Ben Heimsath commented…

This is a great challenge we see all congregations needing to face. At Heimsath Architects, we worked with Cypress Creek Christian Church in the Houston area to design their worship space in conjunction with local music and arts groups. The Centrum is now a thriving arts organization that uses the church's space for a regular season of performances. (http://www.thecentrum.org/)

Daniel Longden

1

Daniel Longden commented…

As I read this article, our church is currently hosting a local Project Homeless Connect where over 200 people have gone through our doors since 10 am this morning. Praise God for this ministry!

Todd Plunk

1

Todd Plunk commented…

My church in Austin (www.austinstone.org) is doing this very thing. We just built our first permanent campus and made the primary purpose of our building to be used during the week rather than on Sunday. Our campus now houses a newly created umbrella non-profit (http://www.forthecity.org) that is tasked with bringing together different non-profits all seeking the welfare of Austin. Read more through the links above.

84,970

Randy4jesus commented…

Fear of violating tax laws of some kind limit quite a few churches from using their facilities for outside groups. We need some clear information on donations versus rent etc.

84,970

Sharon commented…

My church in the little community of Niceville, FL is doing just this. Offering English as a second language classess, Bible study in Spanish, outreach to Single moms, and a twice weekly after school tutoring program (complete with transport from school to church to home afterward and outreach to families of the students involved). I wonder just how far and wide you've actually looked before writing this article because I would venture to guess there are lots of other churches using their facilities and doing similar ministry during those other six days.

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