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The Underrated Strategic Value of Church Buildings

What hath bodily resurrection to do with church buildings?

This question is vividly on my mind because the building where our church formerly worshiped is being converted to luxury condos, and ground-breaking just began. For the first time in 100 years, that sanctuary was empty and silent on Easter Sunday.

There’s an emerging trend of historic church buildings being bought by developers and converted to condos. In cities like Washington D.C, sacred spaces are quickly disappearing from the civic landscape. And as I recently explained elsewhere, I believe this isn’t only sad for the church but also bad for the neighborhood.

Buildings for the Common Good

Church buildings facilitate the mission of the church. They provide physical space not only for the worship of God (1 Pet. 2:9) and the nurture of the saints (Eph. 4:15–16) but also for the witness of the church, which is called to be a “light” to the world (Matt. 5:14–16). At their best, therefore, church buildings serve not only their worshiping members but also the common good. They are visible emblems of Jesus’s neighborly proximity and public outposts of God’s kingdom in the city’s commons. Church buildings, when filled with the merciful people of God, are “sanctuaries” for downtrodden neighbors seeking refuge from the storms of life.

We embrace church buildings for the common good.

In her examination of the civic challenges faced by religious communities seeking to acquire or renovate houses of worship, The Atlantic’s Emma Green recently wrote the following about the value that religious communities add to a neighborhood or town:

Without an adequate place to gather, [religious groups] miss opportunities to assemble in study, service, and prayer. The stakes are high for towns, too. Churches, synagogues, and mosques influence life well outside their walls: People who belong to religious institutions are more civically engaged than their secular neighbors. They are more likely to serve on school boards, volunteer at charities, and join clubs. In the absence of these institutions, communities can become fractured and isolated. Neighborly infrastructure decays.

When the church has no home or no visible presence in the neighborhood, it’s not just the church that loses. The neighborhood loses too.

Rebuilding Our Embrace of Buildings

There are steps that cities can take to ameliorate this problem. Economic incentives could be created for churches to sell their buildings to other churches or community-based nonprofits. Zoning regulations could be adjusted to protect historic church buildings from falling prey to fast-paced, unaccountable development.

But rather than laying all responsibility for solving this issue on our municipalities, we must also acknowledge that Christian communities are partly responsible for this church-to-condo conversion trend. Over the last several decades, after all, the American church has developed a preference for “non-traditional” spaces of worship, often to the neglect of existing “historic” spaces. My point here is not to assign value to one type of worship facility over another; it’s simply to note that in some cases, church buildings have been sold to developers because there’s no market among churches.

We must acknowledge that Christian communities are partly responsible for this church-to-condo conversion trend.

So what is our role in stopping the gradual erasure of historic church buildings from the civic landscape of our cities? What can churches do?

First, we must recommit ourselves to a biblical vision of service, neighbor, and the common good.

The gospel alone constrains and empowers us to put the needs and interests of our neighbors above our own (Phil. 2:1–4). May we sacrificially devote our possessions and property, even our buildings, toward the benefit of our neighborhoods.

Will our church buildings serve as fortresses, meeting our own needs and protecting us from a hostile world? Or will they serve as kingdom outposts, through which we serve a hungry and hurting world?

A commitment to the latter—especially in densely populated, walkable neighborhoods like mine—may motivate us to pursue historic buildings as strategic opportunities for creative ministry.

Second, we must practice the catholicity of the church.

Churches need to foster friendships and partnerships with other churches in their immediate area, cultivating a deeper sense of ecclesial unity and interdependency (Eph. 4:4–5).

As a fruit of this partnership in the gospel, perhaps those who need to sell their property (for any number of legitimate reasons) will seek to pass on their property to others who will continue the ministry of the gospel. Indeed, I know of some ministries who have done just that.

How can we encourage churches to relate to each other not primarily on a financial basis but on a filial basis, even as they seek to steward their respective needs and assets?

Third, we should seek creative ways to raise capital for the purchase and preservation of historic church buildings.

The financial challenge in cities like Washington, D.C., is this: churches that can fit in these historic church buildings are too small to afford the asking price, and churches that have the resources to pay them can’t fit in them.

Generally speaking, city churches can’t purchase historic properties on their own. They will need kingdom-minded benefactors who embrace this vision of the gospel in the city and the church’s role in promoting the common good. Who will help churches buy or remain in their kingdom outposts?

Fourth, and most importantly, we need to recover a robust theology of place and space that promotes the value of the built environment.

Books like Leonard Hjalmarson’s No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place and Eric Jacobsen’s Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith and The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment have been particularly helpful in my own recovery of this vital theology.

Without such convictions, churches won’t be convinced that buildings matter or are worth investing in. Too often, the church’s final word on its physical facilities is summed up in the popular mantra: “the church is not a building.” Certainly, it’s true that the Christ’s ekklesia is a people, a family of “living stones” being built into a “spiritual house” (1 Pet. 2:5) rather than, say, a house of brick and mortar.

The architecture and aesthetics of our houses of worship—what we see, hear, feel, and even smell—invariably shape our communion with Christ and one another week after week.

But the Bible also affirms that we are incarnate beings (e.g., Rom. 12:1; 1 Cor. 6:19; cf. Pss. 103:14; 139:13–16). Our faith in Christ and obedience to Christ is always embodied. We have never worshiped our Lord in anything but physical bodies and anywhere but in a physical space. Thus, the architecture and aesthetics of our houses of worship—what we see, hear, feel, even smell—invariably shape our communion with Christ and one another week after week. Prior generations understood this and invested an enormous amount of thought into the architecture and construction of their sanctuaries.

There’s no greater affirmation of our embodied natures and the value of our physical environment than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. So declares the empty tomb: God cares about physical stuff, so much so that all of creation along with our bodies will be redeemed in Christ (Rom. 8:18–25; 1 Cor 6:14; Phil. 3:20–21). Indeed, some of it—bodies and even buildings—will last forever (1 Cor. 15:58; Rev. 21:24–26).

If Christ has not been raised, our buildings are in vain, and we are of all mortgage-laden people most to be pitied. But he is raised. Let us, then, embrace church buildings for the common good.

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