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Facilities & Ministry Question #4 - Do our facilities still fit the ministry to which God calls us today?

Facilities & Ministry Question #4 - Do our facilities still fit the ministry to which God calls us today?

We are continuing the series on "ministry and facilities."  We will be looking at the fourth question: Do our facilities still fit the ministry to which God calls us today? 

I shared earlier that my father was an architect.  One of the things I remember him saying is that in the struggle between a building and how you want to use it, the building wins in the long run.  Which is to say, a building is designed with certain ideas in mind about how it will be used; when these ideas change, the building may not cooperate? 

Here are six common examples with which many congregations grapple. 

  • Forty or fifty years ago, designers and church leaders assumed a much more passive role for worshipers and a more static sense of what happens at worship.  Pews were perfect then.  Today, many congregations want more flexibility in planning worship gatherings and assume more movement and involvement by worshipers than before; consequently, moveable chairs may make more sense.
  • Many chancels were designed with little space not taken up by the choir, pulpit, lectern, baptismal font, altar and speaker chairs.  Space for drama or praise team singers, musicians and instruments were not thought necessary.   Today, finding space for these is often a challenge in older sanctuaries.  
  • Churches have for many decades been designed assuming that the Gospel is communicated primarily through spoken word to which worshipers listened.  The preacher stood in a pulpit and delivers her or his sermon.  In today’s image rich world, the use of video clips and PowerPoint slides is becoming common and even necessary as how people take in and sort information becomes more visual.  Some sanctuaries, however, are simply not designed with a convenient way to hang a screen or mount a video projector. 
  • Once all preachers stood behind a pulpit and in their role as Proclaimers of God’s Word.  In today’s world, congregation’s are less moved by role and authority conveyed by ordination and appointment, than they are by a sense of personal authenticity and integrity.  Consequently, many preachers get out from behind a pulpit reading or presenting carefully crafted alliterative phrases.  They stand before their audience where they can be seen and share sermons in a style that seems more genuine and appropriately self-revelatory.  The way some chancels are designed, make this quite difficult.
  • Many sanctuaries are designed without any thought that people need space for gathering to develop relationships and to be community.  When people lived in stable communities where they knew their neighbors, went to school and work and little league with their neighbors, this seemed unnecessary.  But today when so many of us don’t even know the names of the people who live next door, space to gather and relate is critical to helping individuals become community. 
  • Finally, many of our facilities were designed at a time when having pulpit and lectern microphones met all the sound amplification requirements they had.  And quality expectations for amplification were pretty low.  Today, the variety of sound amplification and mixing needs is significant and the quality assumed as minimal by most persons is quite high.  Congregations must often spend significant money upgrading their sound equipment (and training their operators!)  or risk being unable to retain persons less than 50 years old attending their worship gatherings. 

Before closing, let me mention two other ways that church facilities can be at odds with the ministry to which Christ is calling a congregation today. 

First, several shrinking congregations find themselves in the situation of struggling to keep up with repairs on an aging facility that has become an albatross around the neck of their ministry.  Instead of enabling ministry, leaders are consumed by roofs that leak, paint that is pealing, air-conditioners that aren’t cooling and rooms that smell like grandmother’s attic.  While it is a Herculean challenge, church leaders might do well to wonder if selling the existing structure and relocating to a smaller and newer one might be the best option for equipping their congregation’s ministry for the future. 

Secondly, facilities can be built in a location that no longer facilitates the ministry to which a congregation is being called.  Some congregations find that while the location of their facilities made perfect sense when they were built, because of changes in the demographics of the community they just don’t make sense any more.  Facilities that once were in densely populated areas, now are located where few people live.  Facilities that were built on the edge of town or in a rural area that was expected to grow, now find that the growth happened elsewhere and this is not a location that people normally come by anymore.  One of the geniuses of the Methodist movement was that they went where the people were.  Sometimes our facilities can keep us rooted exactly where the people aren't.

In a variety of urban areas, congregations were built close together with the assumption of being neighborhood congregations.  Today, 4 or 5 or 6 congregations may find themselves within a several minute drive of each other and each is struggling simply to keep the doors open.  Church leaders are consumed with trying to survive financially.  Imagine what might happen if the leaders of these congregations came together and tried instead to seek God’s guidance on a common ministry strategy for their area – as opposed to keeping their individual congregations in their current facilities going.  This may enable them to move from self-preoccupation to mission with Christ to their community, and from a scarcity mentality to the realization that given their combined facilities, they have significant resources to be invested in a regional ministry strategy!   In several urban settings in our Conference, groups of congregational leaders are in a process of discerning a regional missional strategy that is made possible by closing and selling some facilities and reinvesting the resources in ministry that makes sense and is effective today.  If you are interested in talking more about this, contact me.

Well, these are just some of the ways that facilities can become the dog that wags the tail of ministry, rather than the other way around.  Our next CT Blog entry will address question #:  Are we using our facilities to attract persons to Christ and to His community gathering here?


Dr. Jeff Stiggins
Office of Congregational Transformation