Real estate realities


I’m on the Congregational Development Committee at our Local Governing Body. We had a meeting yesterday. I was tired, hungry, and crabby, which means I probably should have played hooky. But I didn’t. And so I subjected all of my colleagues to my irritable rants. (Do you ever have one of those days when you try, try, try to be the nice person that you are, and instead everything comes out of your mouth like a big confrontation? That’s what it felt like yesterday.)

Yet, I think my sleep-deprived frustration got me thinking a bit. Our main discussion centered around New Church Developments, which are a huge challenge in the DC region because of the cost of real estate. Which leaves us with the question, “Do we need the real estate to be church?”

Now, if you’ve read my book, or my site, you probably know that I have a huge passion for church buildings. I love sanctuaries. I love the immense stone ones with delicate stained glass. I love the white sanctuaries that remind me of the best parts of my Baptist roots. I love the simple glass ones that welcome the outdoors inside to worship with us, like a good Psalm does. I spent much of my childhood worshiping in a warehouse and a strip mall. I came out of it craving the ancient beauty of traditional worship spaces.

Does that mean I have something against warehouse, strip mall, or theater churches? Of course not. I simply still want traditional churches to be in the picture too. We’ve got a big job to do. We need both, and.

Which lead us back to the question, “Do we need the real estate to be the church?”

No. We don’t. Someone added, “What if we thought more in terms of relationship instead of real estate?” And when we began to crawl over that major obstacle, we were coming up with some amazing ideas. Ideas that continued after the meeting, in my office, in the parking lot, and (I hope) all the way home.

Jan’s on the committee (and how cool is that? Can you imagine working on church transformation with her? I’m so lucky), and she reminded us that the days of buying a block of land in a growing suburb, parachuting a pastor into it, and calling it a church are over. We need to think differently. Of course, “differently” certainly doesn’t mean that any of the following ideas are original, they were just getting us going. And so, we began to think:

What about a church in a strip mall, next to a coffeehouse? Or in a coffeehouse. We could lead discussions there. People could grab a coffee and go to church. (This is the kind of church I grew up in, and I had such bad experiences there…I couldn’t personally go this route, but you know, this is not about me…)

What about a church in a townhouse? I love this idea, especially in D.C. This could be an amazing space. I admire the pastor who can start a home church, but here again, I couldn’t personally pastor one. I like to go home at the end of the day. As in, away from the office. So, I think it would be ideal if the townhouse didn’t have to be the pastor’s house.

What about gutting a closed, traditional church? Take the pews out, and turn it into something completely different. We could get creative with the real estate. Sell off the Christian Education building and the pastor’s offices. Put the money into making the sanctuary fresh and amazing.

What about doing a service at an alternative time in an already existing church building?

And, my dream? My dream is that we go prefab. I would like to see our denomination, or a foundation, or someone hire a really amazing architect who could design an elegant prefab sanctuary that could be used all across the nation. It could be a simple design, with an emphasis on being green.

So what do you want to see? Imagine the possibilities….

the photo’s by Alificacion and it’s entitled “Church inside of a cave”


8 thoughts on “Real estate realities

  1. “Do we need the real estate to be the church?”

    In my opinion, this is a no brainer. Both from the example of Jesus and the early church, and the many examples of wonderful churches today without a building of their own.

    If I were starting a new church I would insist on not having our own building or land to begin with. That way we could form our community/identity/vision and then intentionally decide if we needed space of our own and what kind of space. We could then set guidelines for how we wanted the building to be used, and how much of your resources we wanted it to consume.

    Too many churches are burdened with buildings that are too big, too old, or designed for a different church than they are today.

  2. Please not “prefab,” each congregation needs to create its own spacial identity. Space says far to much about a community for us to go with “prefab” churches.

    Actually I’m surprised you like the idea of prefab. I had the impression that the corner store, and local coffee shop was more your ideal than the one size fits all supermarket and Starbucks.

  3. Neil,

    You’re right. I don’t like the supermarket and Starbucks, personally. For me, Starbucks is a place that I have to go to, the local coffee shop is where I choose to go. And I really don’t want the church to turn into a Starbucks. That wasn’t my idea. It was just one idea that someone else had.

    But…the crazy prefab idea is mine. I take full credit there. Did you click on the link? There are amazing things going on in this area right now. I’m not talking trailers. I’m thinking about beautiful spaces, solid construction, quality material. Well-made and affordable (170K!). That’s got to be better than those Calvary Chapel warehouses, right? I would love to see an architect take on the possiblity.

    They had these eco-friendly prefab homes on the mall a couple of years ago, which got me thinking….

    And I’m imagining something nationally. Not that every NCD in our neighborhood should have one, but it could be one of many affordable options for different parts of the country. (And, you’ve got to admit, there’s a lot of repetition already in our existing architecture…).

    I love the “spacial identity” concept that you both talk about–that our spaces should be a reflection of who we are. I wonder how often that’s the case any more.

  4. I’ve been asked to look at NCD as a possible next calling (going to be assessed to see if I have what it takes, at least in terms of what my denomination wants to have), and I have been wondering a lot about the “where.” There are a couple of towns being considered, but I find myself trying to imagine spaces in which things happen and God is present. Of all the ideas you mention, gutting an old church is probably most exciting to me, but I don’t know if that would be a possibility in the target communities. I could see working with an old grange hall, too.
    Thanks for this post.

  5. Great ideas. Where I currently worship, we rent space and love not having the head-ache of real estate. (This was a house church started 5 years ago which long since outgrew the house). A place friends worship in Glasgow, Scotland is one of those ancient stone places you love — but when a storm brought something crashing through the roof a few years ago, they did the whole gutting and changing thing, so they have the lovely old structure and a simple, contemporary church in the round inside it. As for pre-fab, or “modular” — they’re really catching on here in the mountains. You wouldn’t know they were modulars just by looking — great structures, interesting designs, very green. I think it’s a good way to go.

  6. An old grange hall? Interesting…

    The only thing I wonder about gutting an old church is, how does the community find out about the transition? I guess it would take a mass of publicity.

    Woo hoo! One vote for prefab! Thanks lj! And “modular” does sound better…

    Churches in the round are so cool. I did a wedding in one once that was amazing. It’s a great idea, especially if the building’s swallowing up the congregation. The space ends up much more intimate. Although, I imagine that it’s tricky to design.

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