Your church plant is growing and there's an empty or struggling historic church in your neighbourhood - what do you do next?
An American United Methodist denominational-leader friend of mine wrote recently asking if I could recommend some ideas she could pass on to churches she's working with who are considering a new use for their church building. It didn't take me long to understand some of the other situations these congregations were facing - a long look at some church traditions that just aren't working the way they use to, declining attendance, some beautiful prayerful people but simply not enough of them to sustain a big old and expensive church building. There are folks like this all over the Western world who long to see new things happen in their buildings, but they are deeply uncomfortable (or unable) to navigate the required conversations.
What are some questions my friend could help guide this congregation through? What are some questions that you might be asking, yourself?
- Where did this whole thing start? Looking at a church's history - it's cornerstone, it's wall plaques and historic moments - often gives a great background to this conversation. 'This building is dedicated to the Glory of God' you might read. How glorious is God appearing to the community, these days? What of the church's activities says 'Our God is on the move!' This can be such a wonderful question to explore, but beware the hidden emotion of shame. Guilt is something quite different - guilt would be present if the folks there had disobeyed what they'd been told to do by their denomination and screwed up a church! Shame, though, is an emotion that can be present in these situations when the leaders reflect along the lines of, 'we did all we were asked to do, but somehow this just didn't work!' If new ideas come in without engaging this emotion, an explosion can easily happen. But starting with foundational dreams is a beautiful thing.
- Do we own this building? Is this our personal possession as a team of elders? Does this belong to 'our' church (the church of the past, the church of the future?) Is it the possession of our denomination or... does this building actually and really belong to God? We may know that the last answer is correct, but behave in practice like the first. Realizing that this building is built that people might enter and flourish in a relationship with Jesus Christ - irrespective of church practice, doctrine, churchmanship or tradition - is a key to unlocking potential new ideas. In a recent conversation I led like this recently, one man told his fellow-elders that 'over his dead body would the pews be taken out' We spoke about this and asked, 'is this what we should do? should we wait for you to die? (...) or is there a better way?' The problem here began with the idea that the building was a personal possession. I'm not saying that this answers a question about seating furniture (!) but perhaps illustrating the point helps to set it in the right context.
- Could we agree to suspend disbelief (maybe just for an hour?) I love asking this question in hard meetings. If we could agree to suspend the negative, defeatist attitude that sometimes invades a meeting before it has even begun, then we can really release creativity. For a group that may have enjoyed / endured the status quo for decades, this is hard. But so wonderful when it can happen! Perhaps you can begin with simply asking about it.
- What is the wildest dream we could have for this place? A good facilitator will always make sure that the quietest, youngest, most inexperienced member of a group can speak. I find that it is often here where God delivers his still, small voice. Asking for the craziest dreams - true brainstorming - can release a new spiritual reality into the atmosphere. Listening to gasps inward, sighs outward and leaning in are all ways of knowing that ideas are flowing. Personally, I like to have these big static-adhesive sticky giant sheets on the wall and give everyone a marker (like the Brethren who give everyone a microphone)
- What scares us about these ideas? By asking about what frightens people, it lances a boil. It also puts responsibility into the group to articulate fears, rather than brew on them. A good facilitator will protect each persons contribution and make sure that others don't answer the fear right there and then. Let people voice their fears and give them room to breathe. With all the fears on paper, it helps everyone to say 'we acknowledge and recognize these fears AND we want to move ahead, around them!' What an awesome way to make bold new decisions as a group.
- Are there others who have done what we could do? Denominations are getting better at sharing case studies of best practice. Churches sharing buildings, denominations offering medium-term leases and other creative ideas are all over (a huge part of the purpose of this blog and my doctoral research is to play my part in collecting more of those stories).
- How can we make a decision that will impact the faith of our grandchildren? Facilitator, this is an ace to keep in your pocket for when things go a little sour! You'll understand why!
- If we were to sell or share our building, who could we partner with? Could we meet them? I have found that there are some new church planters and initiatives that I would never put in front of a struggling established congregation. There are some amazing visionary people who would blow nearly anyone out of the room, let alone a group like this. But those are the exception to the rule I have found that God is raising up a generation of humble, godly, sensitive church planters who.. if you met them.. would convince you that our God is on the move. Denominations can be hugely helpful in connecting potential partners with existing congregations. This is also part of our work in networks like Church Planting Canada, Exponential and other church planting networks.
- What is God saying? This can be a hard questions if tensions are high - arguments that start with 'I believe clearly that God is saying X' against '" " "...Y' can be very divisive. But when there are the beginnings of peace / shalom / agreement about a way forward may be a particular time to welcome again (assuming you would start in prayer in worship!!!) God's presence and voice into this situation. I have found that the most beautiful solutions have been surrounded by the language 'but then we simply sensed God guiding us to....' This is such a huge question, but also a delicate one in this kind of discussion.
- How can we pray? I believe there is a risk in rushing in prayer. I know that in my own life because I love see things happen quickly! Pastors / leaders / facilitators I think may fall into the risk of guiding the group to pray in ways which may assume certain outcomes. What if that could be avoided? What if questions were left open, decisions unmade and conclusions held back, even as the group was sent out to listen in prayer. The beautiful thing with this is when the prayer 'Lord, let your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven' becomes the chorus that brings in.... revival!
May God be with you as you have your meeting! If you're reading this, maybe you'll even let us know how it went! :-)