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Posts Tagged ‘church buildings’

churchbuildingAs you know, Sherrylee and I are traveling through Europe, visiting with mission points about hosting Let’s Start Talking  short-term mission projects. We’ve done this kind of trip for over thirty years now, so there is very little that surprises us, BUT that doesn’t mean that we don’t continue to have new experiences that cause us to ponder about how God’s work is done in Europe.—or anywhere for that matter.

I’ve been thinking this morning about church buildings and/or meeting places and how important—or not important—they are.  Sherrylee brought this up yesterday as we were driving—she is the first mover if not the primary source of much of my thinking.

One of the churches we visited has a beautiful three-storey brick building, marble floors, multiple classrooms, a very large terrace where they have their baptisms as well as church socials. In addition, they have an auditorium with a stage, stage lighting, sound system—the whole works—for approximately 150 people with theater seating.  I have never visited a mission church of their size in Europe that had such a nice building.

At another city, we met with a missionary that has planted three different churches in his region.  They all meet in garages that are revamped to serve as meeting space.  They are roomy, multi-functional, and are friendly—but they are a garage. From the outside they look like a garage, and from the inside they look like a nice garage.  Each of these garages will hold a group of 30-50 people sitting down.  One garage they have outgrown and are looking for new space—don’t know if they are looking for a garage or not. I think they usually start in garages because the garage belongs to someone who is either a member or a friend of their church and they can use it at no great cost.

Another church we visited met on the fourth floor—walk up—of an older office building. It was just an opened space—nice, clean, some minimal decoration to let people know it was a church.  It was also the space they used for office space, for their kitchen (in the back corner) and for any other indoor activities they might have as a church.  Many starting churches in Europe choose space like this and never grow out of it. This work has existed for about ten years and they have a community of about twenty people.

Our most recent visit has been with a young missionary family who has only been on the field for ten months.  They have come and are working with a local established religious organization whose main outreach has been summer camps for children through teens. The camp is in a much smaller town about an hour from where this couple lives, and a church of about 150 has grown up in the smaller town around the camp work.

This couple is here to try to plant a new work in the larger city now.  The organization has already rented a small but well located storefront just off of the main street of the city.  Currently they are not meeting here as a church, but they use these rooms for community activities, for Bible studies, and for any other activities that are organized in this city by their sponsors.  They describe it as either a clubhouse or a community center.  It is furnished with couches, nice sitting areas, some tables and chairs, and a catchy pop art mural on the main wall.  Nice space—very post-modern—not churchy at all.

If I were choosing the “best” strategy for Europe with regard to church buildings, I would likely say to start with the community center idea until there was a core group of disciples. Then I might jump to the real church building to demonstrate a real presence, a commitment, and significance. 

But I don’t know any European group that can afford to build its own building like that, and I don’t know any American churches that would invest in a building in Europe like that! 

Interestingly, Willow Creek built a building in Spain for 500 people about 10-15 years ago—and the work there has been unusually successful for Europe.  I don’t know all the details, but the results are unusual enough that I can wonder if a substantial investment in a substantial building didn’t pay off for their work there?

Which begs the opposite question:  how great is the impact on the work in Europe of a complete unwillingness of our churches to invest there, not only in buildings but in the high cost of supporting workers in Europe?

God has blessed the work in the garage, on the fourth floor, in the clubhouse, and in the marble-floored church building.  He doesn’t dwell in temples made with hands!  But I keep thinking that He did not stay in a tent in Israel forever either

I know all about the empty cathedrals.  But I still wonder what our buildings—and non-buildings—say about our God in Europe today??

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Like 3500-4500 churches each year in America, this church was thinking about closing its doors.  Just over eight years ago, there had been enough energy and hope among somewhere near 200 church members to add a new 300-seat auditorium and several classrooms to their small, aging facility.

But by the end of 2011, in spite of several soul-searching attempts at revival and renewal, church membership was about 50 members with little hope left of turning things around.

This church had a very limited number of choices; without knowing what actually took place, I’m confident that some members probably wanted to hold on and keep trying to grow. “If we just work harder, . . . .”  Other members may have been for searching out a partner and merging with a larger established congregation. Other small churches in this area have done that in the last few years.(See “Southlake and The Hills ).  I hope none were tempted to maintain their identity until the last person walked out the door and locked up the building, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Ultimately, the church and its leaders decided that even this process could be damaging to those members still left, so the best thing to do for this congregation was to encourage all current members to seek other church families and to become involved with them.  Sunday, May 27 was the last communion service in this building which had been home to this church family for three decades.

But what about the building? What happens to all the things, including the building, when a church disbands?

By law, non-profit organizations—which includes churches—upon dissolution cannot just sell everything and distribute the proceeds to the members. It doesn’t take long to figure out why! Virtually all of the money used to purchase all of the assets would have been charitable donations for which all of the donors received tax benefits.  The church property had been tax exempt. And much of the money given charitably to the organization would have been given by people who were no longer associated with the church.  The principle is the no one is allowed to “profit” from the sale of a non-profit!

So what happens with all the assets when a church disbands?  A church building, for instance, can be sold, but all the proceeds must be distributed to other non-profit organizations.  I have known church buildings which were sold and all of the proceeds went to build Christian camps; others gave their funds to other congregations to support mission work; still others have given their funds away to facilitate new church plants.

This church decided to sell the building and distribute all of the funds to a variety of ministries with which the church had been involved.

Let’s Start Talking was a ministry in search of a home; we were going to be evicted on September 30 of this year to make room for a new airport freeway.  On July 16, the day after the “For Sale” sign appeared in front of the church building, we contacted the church leaders, who by that time were the only “members” of the congregation left and the ones who were personally maintaining and funding the building.

Because they knew and had actually participated as a church with Let’s Start Talking, they were eager to talk.  From the very beginning, they made it clear that they were willing to sell us the building well below its appraised value in order to make it possible for LST to purchase the building.

After just a few conversations, the church leaders made LST a firm offer that could be accepted, a purchase price that was just over 50% of what the church was asking others to pay.

This morning, October 12, we sat around the table with the banker and the lawyer, and the deed to the facility passed from these faithful church leaders to the Let’s Start Talking Ministry.  The papers were signed quickly, but afterwards we all just stood around and talked about how God had once again provided in a way that exceeded our imaginations.

Sherrylee asked some of the church leaders if there were any pangs of remorse.  Of course there is some sense of loss, but these men all reassured us of the joy it brought them to know that what had been of such great benefit to them was now going to continue to be used for the work of the kingdom and through a ministry in which they believed God was working.

LST is the beneficiary of this great blessing, and we know that all good gifts come from the Father, but we want to commend these church leaders for faithful stewardship of all with which they had been entrusted—to the very end!

They are a great example to the leaders of all of those 3500-4500 churches that are closing each year. The end of your story is not the end of God’s story for you!

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