By Laura Stephens-Reed
Churches are sacred places because they help us feel closer to God. Our spirits are buoyed by the music coming from the choir loft. Sitting in the seats that are just uncomfortable enough to keep us alert, we have heard God’s word proclaimed. We have walked up the steps of the baptistry, our clothes weighed down by water but our hearts made free by our new commitment to follow the example of Jesus. In all the ways that departed church members are memorialized—plaques outside of Sunday school rooms, bookplates in hymnals, stained glass windows in the sanctuary—we are reminded of what they taught us about discipleship by their words and their actions.
Churches are important places because key moments in our lives take place there. We might have been married there. We might have grieved the loss of an influential figure in our lives there. We might have heard God’s call to the ministry there. We might have made lifelong friends or found nurture that was lacking in other areas of our life there.
Place is important. At the same time, to limit church to one place doesn’t do it justice. Church is the body of Christ, active everywhere, all the time. Church is us, trying each day to be faithful to our baptism as we interact with others.
The church I belonged when I was in seminary has a sign outside the sanctuary that says, “Oakhurst Baptist Church meets here.” The location brings us closer to one another and to God. But it is not the full expression of church.
During the pandemic, as we’ve been separated from our in-person meeting spaces to varying degrees, we have missed our church campuses. We’ve foregone potlucks in our fellowship halls and hugs across pew backs and struggles to keep up with the pianist who is playing the hymns too fast. We have also gotten some healthy distance from the idea that the church is its physical plant. We’ve gotten inventive with worship on Zoom or by meeting outdoors. We’ve mailed Bible studies and sermon manuscripts and dropped off care packages on one another’s porches. We’ve found ways to serve our community by donating and showing up rather than inviting people into our buildings. And we have embodied Christ’s love through it all.
Before Covid interrupted it all, many congregations were facing the reality that their attendance no longer aligned with their footprint. I’ve been in sanctuaries that seat 1000 people that now have one zero fewer than that on a Sunday morning. This is the story across North America: Churches that were built or that expanded their facilities decades ago now find themselves with more room (and the associated maintenance costs) than they need or can handle.
And now, we find ourselves in a hybrid church world to boot. Those who might have attended church in person two years ago, now choose to engage as much online as onsite.
What, then, can churches that find themselves in this “big building-little congregation” situation do?
Celebrate your congregation’s history. Your church has a heritage full of meaning to individuals, the congregation, and the larger community. Your church campus has facilitated those key moments. Give thanks!
Name and claim your congregation’s values and purpose. What is it that makes your church, well, your church? What collective commitments do you have? What compromises would you never make? Your responses to these questions point to core values. What is your congregation’s role in the world if it fully lives these values? That – and not your physical footprint – is your identity.
Consider how your current attendance makes your church nimble. Congregations that are shrinking often experience shame: “Once we were big, and now we are small.” You did nothing wrong, and I would encourage you to reframe. “Small” is a speedboat, not an ocean liner. It is responsive to circumstances. It can gear up or change course quickly if needed. This agility is a gift to your congregation and larger community.
Get creative about building usage. Your church has a lot of options once it gets clear enough on values and purpose to act out of them. (You might want to go so far as to name how your church campus has been or could potentially be a hindrance to living into the divine invitations you’ve discerned.) Find groups that would like to rent your space when you’re not using it. Partner with an organization that would use the church on a daily basis and that would also manage the building. Create a community hub, housing services that meet people’s physical and mental needs as you offer spiritual care to these same people in need. Sell your building and meet elsewhere such as a storefront that gets lots of foot traffic, or – if you really want to go New Testament – start one or more house churches.
Grieve as needed. Even if there is consensus on what your congregation does with its space, do not neglect this step. There will be feelings of loss, whether of the space itself, of having full control over the space, or of the dream that the congregation will bounce back to its formerly big size. This grief can be held alongside the excitement that God is doing a new thing, but it cannot be fully replaced by it.
We are in a new era of church. From this point on, church size will continue moving toward the extremes: either megachurches or churches with average attendance of fewer than 150 people. Pray about how you can best incarnate all that has been good about your church’s legacy and show the love of Christ in new ways. God is not done with you, and even (maybe especially) a small church can have a mighty impact.
Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama.