10 steps to buying an old church for your new church plant

Your church plant is growing and there's an empty or struggling historic church in your neighbourhood - what do you do next?  How do we respond to news that just one of our mainline denominations in Canada is set to close 1000 church buildings in the next 5 years?     This material was originally presented as a seminar for Church Planting Canada’s national Congress in Montreal, October 2015 and is a part of the Canadian Church Buildings Conversation.


1.  Ask God first


Is God calling you into a ministry based in a historic building?   What prayerful message have you received?   Have you tested these with your counsellors and mentors?    Have you got the congregation or planting support to handle an old church building?  Are you willing to bend your theology to enter into what could become a complicated legal arrangement with a mainline denomination?   These are the kind of questions I ask every planter who calls me when thinking about an empty or underused building in their neighbourhood.  Often I find God has spoken very clearly to them and they are well prepared but every so often, I hear of a planter who just likes the look of that steeple and wants to get in there!   Unfortunately, the latter cases are usually the ones that end in frustration for the planter and can disrupt the delicate trust being built up.


2.  Ask your leadership next


The best way to seek out a historic church building is with the total permission and buy-in of your elders.  This doesn’t mean that Chairman Bob is going to mortgage his family farm to buy your new site for cash (although if he does offer, skip to the end) but it does mean that you as church planter are not going rogue on your board before they have a chance to express their concerns or encouragement.   This is a good time to talk through the issues and address some of the questions above.   This will also help you avoid wasting time with denominational officers who are facing multiple offers for the best sites.   As above, keep in mind that every move you make has an impact on others working out the same concerns in your region.   Here’s an example:  Pastor Paul strikes up a great friendship with some friendly Anglicans and agrees a deal in concept which allows the building to be purchased and the Anglicans to worship on a Sunday afternoon in their former building.  Pastor Paul thinks he’s saved the day (which he would have with a deal like that - a real win!) but he has been totally oblivious to Treasurer Jim who can’t believe that anybody other than a Baptist/Pentecostal/whatever-flavour-Jim-is could worship in ‘his’ church building.  Jim blows the deal out of the water at the last minutes and guess what the most important effect of the whole episode becomes?  The Anglican (Regional) Synod meets later in the year with agenda item #1: “Why we must never contemplate selling buildings to Pastor Pauls / Treasurer Jims”   


3.  Consider the controversial nature of your statements of faith


If you feel the need to make statements on the home page of your website about your views on sexuality, marriage or church leadership, it is likely that you will struggle to reach a deal on a building purchase with a mainline denomination.  Personally, I feel that statements of this kind are also very off-putting for those outside of the Christian faith and that they serve little real purpose on our front doors.  Of course our beliefs (some of which may be controversial) are so important to have available, but consider how your statements of faith may actually shut down a building conversation, before you’ve even had a face to face conversation.   For many liberal denominations, these battles are absolutely core to who they are as those proclaiming the freedom of Christ.   For conservatives, this is a battleground some feel they really need to hold publicly.   The division here is the main reason these buildings have not automatically changed hands so tread here lightly, and so carefully.   When my evangelical felllow-bros ask me about how to make these approaches, I always have one question:   “do you see the mainline minister(s) you are approaching as brothers & sisters, or neighbours? - if it’s neighbours, you are best to stop now”   I have a number of friends who really can’t journey past this point and I have huge respect for the integrity of their position and also their realization that negotiating a good sale with a mainline denomination is going to be difficult.   There is of course the obvious exception of Evangelical / Catholic connections but there again, I would encourage you to be sure you are able to see this as a family issue before proceeding through choppy waters.   Many of the best partnerships I have seen are initiated by the kind of evangelical churches that are able to walk that beautiful line between holding firm on their values, as well as being open to others who feel differently.   In making these suggestions I risk treading on your toes but… hey, that’s the kind of chat we’re having here!   


4.  Get serious about money


The next common pitfall I often see is smaller churches offering unfairly or unrealistically low prices for buildings.  In some cases, they complain that ‘sister’ churches (who they haven’t connected with in generations, mind you!) ought really to be more charitable.  Take for instance a 30,000 sq ft building in the centre of a small North American City (100,000+ people).   I have seen offers of less than $500,000 for these buildings and I have to tell you folks, those offers will almost always be rejected and here’s why:  the development potential of virtually any site of that size is a multiple far beyond that number, even in the most moderate of circumstances.   You are buying the rights to all future activity on a site and with that in mind, my yardstick is to assume you will be paying North of $1m.   At those prices, traditional denominations begin to learn that new church plants are offering money in some realm comparable to the alternatives they are always facing:  multi-unit residential conversion.   If I’m talking Greek to you already, this is part of what I mean by getting serious - you need folks on your team who can talk real estate, investment and borrowing.   So let’s talk more about borrowing.  If your team is not able to fundraise enough for a deposit and loan on $1 million, you probably are not ready to be taking on a building that may also come with a $500,000 repair price-tag, right from the start.   You may not have the energy to staff a building that, quite unlike a school you may have rented, will now be used 24-7 by other users.    This is an amazing missional opportunity, but you need to be ready for the realities involved.   Here’s the beautiful thing - it only takes a short road-trip in your area, to find churches around who have faced these challenges and overcome them.   Keep in mind, we worship the God who owns and allocates every resource in the universe!    


5.  Get your mainline groove on


Now that we’ve spoken about prayer, leadership theology and money, it’s time to go back to the spirit of this whole thing.  Taking on a historic, city-centre church building.   This is a building which comes with a history.   Folks will start coming along to your new services and let you know that ‘this is actually my church - what I mean is, my grandmother was baptised here’.    If you find that surprising, it’s time to get your mainline groove on!   When you met in the back room of an otherwise locked school, you may not have had visitors who are still on the way home from last night’spub crawl.  With a historic city-centre building, this is what Sunday morning is all about!   You need to get your mainline groove on!    When you’re invited to the Downtown Ministers Fellowship (in our case, called the Old Stone Churches Fellowship just to underline the membership criteria!) and find that everyone is operating on a totally different wavelength to you, church planter…. you need to get your mainline groove on!    I am not talking about changing your theology, church style, song set list or sermon series - I’m talking about an attitude of unity that will help you and your church fit your new setting.   If you can get into this mindset, every part of what comes next will go more smoothly.  If you reject it or at least fail to understand what heritage you’re walking into, you could get shot down at one of the most important hurdles.


6.  Buy Coffee, then Lunch


That most important of hurdles of course, is coffee.   I often have church planters calling to tell me that they’ve seen a near-empty building in their neighbourhood, and they don’t know what to do next.  I ask if they’ve called in on the minister in question to ask him/her for a coffee and almost always, the answer is, “not yet - we’re scared!”   Part of that is very wise, and you should give consideration to the important issues presented earlier.   Another part is dangerous, in that you could get pretty far in your thinking and end up calling in with a message like,  “Hi Rev’d Jerry, I’d like to have coffee with you and share the deep burden God has placed on the heart of our elders and prophets, to come and plant a new church in your building.  We realize that you’re at the end of your life and possibly going to burn in eternal hellfire for the error of your ways but honestly, a great way to repent is just hand over the keys and we’ll make a donation to your burial fund”     Ok I’m totally exaggerating here, but can you see how far a dream can spiral, before initial contact is made?    


By having a coffee early, you can really hear the heart of this mainline minister.  This is a person who loves Jesus, has given their life for ministry in His church and may have inherited a model for church that used to work, but isn’t any more.   If he/she had disobeyed their denomination and used a frieky new hymn book, they might feel guilty.  But if they have done everything they were ever taught by some very fancy theological schools and still the church has emptied, they may be experiencing shame.  The trick with shame is that we don’t know it’s there and struggle therefore to deal with it.  A new church planter full of beans hitting a situation of shame can be like baking soda and vinegar in a bottle - creating a very nice fire extinguisher and the odd explosion!


Meeting for coffee, asking to hear their story, waiting, reflecting, thinking and only then responding, is the best recipe I know to coming up with a great partnership.   Take your relationship to the lunch level and only when you get to know your local minister, start involving your respective elders.   An agreement between pastors can bring miracles.   


At this point I’d like to point you to an amazing story in Chicago, initiated by my friend Pastor Mark Jobe at New Life Chicago.   Mark and his team have done this listening so well that now over a dozen congregations have actually joined his, with their buildings and their history.   Mark’s team have an extraordinary grace that is very difficult to replicate and I’m not sure that is even a great idea in most cases - but as you reflect, check out the New Life story.    

7.  Call some friends

At this point in your story, you will already have called a few friends who have gone before you.   Now is a great time to find out who else has done a similar project in your area.   In Guelph Ontario, Lakeside Church has done such a good job at building relationships with the United Church from which it bought its new downtown building (I lead that plant but by no means am responsible for the whole of the great relationship, nor the initiation of it which predates my arrival)  that other churches in the area have used our good relationship, to start their own.   My hope for the Canadian Church Buildings Conversation is that we talk about these good stories more and more, so that a friend to call is never far from reach.    In other countries, I encourage you to stir up this movement - tell the great stories wherever you can!   

8.  Work with denominations on all sides

Your denomination or network is a great place to go at this point.   Through Church Planting Canada, every catalyst network in our country has a connection with good thinking on church buildings, as well as success stories.  Whereas you may hold your planting network lightly, keep in mind that mainline denominations take this much more seriously and will want to know what track record your network has, in handling these transitions.   You may find your network slows you down or puts some hurdles up for you to cross - embrace these and build favour and support within your denomination.   Especially in your final stages of finance and oversight, these will be key relationships.   

You can also help a mainline congregation build relationships within their own denomination.  In some cases, local Dioceses or Presbyteries can be incredibly positive and knowledgeable about how to handle potential shared-building schemes, rent-to-buy and all kinds of fun ideas.   In other cases, the local folks involved may be quite scared of these ideas and unwilling to engage.   In these cases it sometimes helps to encourage the local congregation to take their challenges up the chain.   I have written a blog post aimed at exactly this issue, here.   

9.  Clarify all plans, hopes and dreams

Now is when things start to get exciting.  You now have a shared and prayerful sense of God guiding you to all towards a building sale/purchase, you have leadership support and good communication about vision.    Now is a great time to really clarify hopes and dreams.   One hope for a mainline denomination closing a congregation, is to go out with dignity and having a sense of passing the baton.   If any of your team have been describing the outgoing congregation as ‘old/fusty/wierd/in error/etc’ you will struggle with this and miss a truly wonderful opportunity.    You may also find that your dreams of creating a care centre for the poor are totally in line with the existing congregation’s dreams - hey, they may even take some of the purchase money and reinvest in one of your programmes!  How cool is that?    If you’ve done your earlier steps well, these conversations will come naturally and you will have a sense of God’s Kingdom truly advancing.  You will have people say ‘It’s almost as if God has planned out this whole thing’ which is a nice little nod for some of your Calvinist folks who may be getting a little hot under their (not-clerical) collars by this point.    Can we laugh together?     This is really not a great time to talk about your hopes for a ‘how to recover from homosexuality’ course and honestly if that’s your bag, you probably will have struggled at one of the earlier hurdles.  Sharing hopes and dreams at this point is about sacrifice, grace, forbearance, gentleness and self-control.  Sound like a good list?  I think there’s some counselling program or or something like that in the Bible?    Come, Holy Spirit!!

10.  Go for it!

Finally, go for it.  Get your funds together, sign on the dotted line, paint those big oak doors and fling wide the gates!   Don’t forget to retrain your worship leaders diligently in leading in a far more resonant space than they’re used to and encourage them to learn about the ‘organ turbo boost’ (Pipe organ chords fired up under verse 4 of some good Vineyard stuff - try it and you’ll see!)   Work with your whole team in helping them realize what a blessing and change in ministry this new space will bring.  Shout it from the rooftops that you’ve made an unusual friendship and encourage your Exponential buddies to join the most hipster / cool / missional / biblical / spirit-filled / disciple-making endeavour you can imagine - reclaiming the Jesus heritage of the centre of your City.   Amen?