By Dr. Deborah Loyd
In the sentiment of the immortal Ramones, many church leaders are asking what to do when their buildings are empty or underutilized… “Do I stay or do I go?… that is, Do we stay and continue to struggle with a building that is losing money, with low attendance, empty nurseries, ill-attended Sunday school classes, and scant prayer meetings? Or do we just let it go to the developers?” Many Churches have become run down money pits due to low tithe, expended endowments, and grant money long gone. Sorrow and exhaustion haunt these leaders, who have spent their lives for the gospel and then watched as their congregations dwindle to near death. The options are slim to none… or are they?
The latest statistics assure us that the number of Christians is not declining, in fact, it is increasing. What is declining is church attendance. A few years ago Phyllis Tickle, in her book The Great Emergence, suggested that the church undergoes a dramatic shift every 500 years, a shift where the church is forced to adjust to a new reality. Luther pounded his thesis on the Wittenburg door in 1517 signaling upheaval of Christianity in Europe, known as the Reformation. Following Tickle’s theory, we are due for another upheaval, another reformation.
For many years a person could be led to faith in Jesus in much the same way. Western Culture had a Judeo/Christian predisposition, the language of the Bible was well understood and respected by the majority. A person only had to make a philosophical leap to join the faith. Not so anymore. A cultural leap is now necessarily complicating the process. We have many cultures to consider when sharing our faith. In his book, A Theology as Big as a City, Ray Bakke points out that our cities have become microcosms of the world. No longer must we travel overseas to encounter the mission field, it lays at our doorsteps. But this deeply challenges us in the practice of our faith because it means that we must adapt for the shifting demographics. Many, unaware of this shift, have failed to adapt, thus the emptying of churches. Our world is prophesying to us. It is telling us that much of what we do is no longer on target. Did Jesus really tell us to do all the stuff we do?
So… empty buildings… what do we do with them? Communities of faith have represented the presence and power of God in the community for a millennium and more. They need not be silenced. Churches have space. Space is at a premium in most cities and neighborhoods. Our abundance answers their felt need. How might we think differently about these buildings so that they still speak? What is possible?
None of this has taken God by surprise. God is waiting for the invitation to help us to get back on target. What do you feel? What do you see? How will the neighborhood know that Jesus is present?
Should you stay or should you go? We would love to help you think that through!