What Kind of Facility Does a Church Really Need?
When a church needs a more permanent place to meet, one of the first questions considered is what sort of facility will be necessary to meet the needs of the church. On one side, that seems almost in the category of “first world problems.” Well-taught Christians understand that churches are a group of people that assemble together, not a building. Most of us have read or heard about churches that meet in countries that are hostile to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In my own church, we have an old, cold-war era picture of a group of people meeting in deep snow, outside in Siberia in the Winter. You can’t see what the temperature is, but it’s obvious that it’s very cold and the people have to stand the whole time in the snow, but are joyfully worshipping Christ together in very adverse circumstances.
However, since churches in America do not meet under such circumstances, for practical reasons, most churchgoers prefer to meet in a building rather than outside. Since even many smaller churches are still larger than 10-20 people, meeting in a house is not really ideal, so a place to meet becomes something that most churches beyond house church size have to consider. While we could say we don’t need a building, it sure is a big help to being able to worship together.
Buildings and COVID-19
The current COVID-19 pandemic has also caused many of us to think on the church’s relationship to buildings. For a while, it was not allowed for groups larger than 10 to meet indoors. In my own state, that was true in the beginning stages of the pandemic as well. Like most churches, for the first couple months, my church had to figure out what meeting together meant. We weren’t set up for remote services, so initially, we emailed to members an order of worship that had links to song services from other churches, scripture for a scripture reading, and online resources for us to meditate on as we worshipped God on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Before long, we figured out how to film and distribute messages online, and we put web links in the emailed orders of service. Then, when the weather got nice, we had services for several weeks under an outdoor pavilion. Eventually, the governor of our state lost a court case that allowed us to begin meeting indoors again, with proper precautions (many of which have continually changed in the past 1.5 years), and we have been doing so since then. We still record video of our services each week, and they are available to those whose health still makes them uncomfortable with the idea of meeting together in our building with us. Most churches, at least in the U.S., are now able to use their building to meet together, but those that are still restricted by government regulations are certainly looking forward to being able to use their facilities again.
Losing Our Building
Our church is blessed right now to have a good facility to meet in. That’s not unusual for probably the majority of churches in America. We don’t own the facility, but we rent it from another church, also not a particularly unusual circumstance. What may make our situation different from most is that both churches use the facilities to meet, and mostly simultaneously, rather than at a time when the other church is not on site. This is an account of how God has helped two churches while giving our church a place to meet.
It would probably help the reader to have a little background at this point. Back in the mid- 2000’s my church had regular attendance of about 250, had a very nice facility that the church had built, and enough income to easily pay the staff, support a number of missionaries and other ministry projects, and still easily cover the utilities, maintenance, and mortgage payments.
However, over time, churches change. During the economic downturn around 2008, we lost many families that moved away for job reasons. Then, due to some stresses in the church, the pastor resigned, and we had a church split. The remaining church attendance at that time numbered less than 80 regulars, including children, and we found ourselves with a property that was too large for us and that we could no longer afford.
After a pastoral search process, and hiring a new pastor, we had to make some hard choices as to how the ministry would survive, and as a result, we decided to sell the building. It took about 3 years, but that put us in a much better financial situation with a fairly large amount of money now in the bank. With regular giving income, we could support the pastor, a secretary, a part-time youth pastor, and some missionaries without dipping into savings. Because the buyer of the church could not pay everything right away, we had use of the building for about an additional two years until their final payoff, for an amount we could afford (basically, we just had to pay the utilities).
Seeking a New Home
Knowing we would eventually need a new place to meet, we started looking at property to purchase, churches that were for sale, leases, and we even considered renting a hotel conference room weekly. Property is expensive in our area, and often hard to come by. We needed something that would be cheap enough that we could afford to build some type of building with no mortgage. We got pretty close at one point, even putting down earnest money on one property, but the city wanted to charge such high site preparation fees for new properties that we realized we couldn’t afford the site after all. Leasing wasn’t much better. Commercial lease rates are high in our area. Also, many of the available properties are unsuitable for a church. Even hotel conference rooms would have been pretty expensive—plus we would have to setup and teardown our church furniture every time we used the facility (around 8 times per month, just for regular services).
Out of the blue (provided by God, of course) we found we had the opportunity to rent space on weekends and Wednesday evenings at a local Ruritan Club. The site wasn’t exactly ideal, but they had adequate space that we could use to setup our chairs, platform, etc., and as long as we let the RC members use our chairs and setup for their meetings and such, we only had to tear down our space for occasional RC events.
They had a large kitchen, available tables for fellowship time, and, the price was definitely right. God was very gracious, and we used that facility for more than 3 years. Eventually, though, our ministry started to grow again, and got just enough new members to make the space very tight. In addition, having any type of service split up into groups was hard, as we mostly just divided up the space, which has its own challenges, since no dividers are completely soundproof. A number of members started inquiring as to when we would be able to have our own space.
A Providential Solution
We heard about a Southern Baptist church near us that also had some needs. Their building was paid for, and fairly well-maintained, but they had a small, aging congregation, and were trying to decide the future of their church. Our pastor met with their pastor, and their pastor suggested a church merge, which is not what our church was looking for. Our pastor suggested purchasing their building instead, which is not what they had in mind.
Trying to find some compromise, eventually, both men considered what it would mean if both churches could meet in their building while remaining separate ministries. Providentially, before they worked on the details, both men had in mind to ask the other what they meant by the Gospel and how they ministered in their churches. When their pastor asked ours that question, our pastor was encouraged, since he had intended to ask the same thing. The pastors met a number of times for many hours, and determined that we were close enough in belief and ministry philosophy to be able to share the building (and for us to pay them money that they would be using to support their ministry), if not close enough to join ministries.
Our deacons met with their deacons to also get to know them and get comfortable with our ministries operating so closely together. Their men prayed with ours and decided that if God worked everything out, we were interested in going forward and presenting this to both congregations.
One of the main reasons that this arrangement could work for us is that our service order is opposite to that of most churches. We hold the main worship service first, followed by a fellowship time with food (though Covid has changed how often we serve food), and then we split up for Sunday school classes, with the main adult class being “Application Time,” where we discuss practical, real-world application of the message from the worship service.
The SBC church had two buildings, one a main sanctuary with office and nursery, and the other a fellowship hall, with kitchen and SS classrooms. They also have a traditional service order with SS followed by the main service. As long as we could figure out a reasonable way to have the congregations exchange buildings, our church could have our prayer/worship service while the other does SS, and then switch.
Working out the Details
To make a long story short(er), after we worked out the details in a contract that specified what we needed and what the host church expected from us, it was passed by both congregations, and we moved from the Ruritan Club to the new (to us) facility in the fall of 2019. While there have been small glitches here and there—and wherever there are people, there will be at least some amount of conflict—things have in general gone very well.
Shortly after we started using the building, we had a fellowship dinner with members of both churches, so we could meet everyone. We still stay mostly separate, but our members have a friendly relationship with members of the other church. Our church has been doing some upgrades to the buildings that both churches have been able to benefit from. We’re paying more than we were at the Ruritan Club, but it’s still within our budget, and it’s an amount that’s a lot better than a commercial lease for us. It’s also enough to help their congregation pay its bills, while giving us a much better facility.
COVID changed things a little bit. For a while, in order to keep distance, and not spread any illness, our congregation—which is larger than that of the other church—stayed in the sanctuary building, and theirs met in the other building. We were careful to make sure we left their members space to get to the other building without having to get too close to our members, since there was only a single sidewalk from the parking lot to get to both the church and fellowship hall. Finally, earlier this year, our church was able to again use both buildings. There are some extra COVID-related cleanup requirements, but the arrangement is still working well.
What is in the future for our church, building and property-wise? We have no idea at this time. We have stopped looking for any lease arrangements, but if the right property, with or without building, fell in our laps for the right price, we’d still consider it. We are in a good position financially to run a real ministry and fund outreach, rather than being able to only pay for our own building and local expenses, so we don’t want to buy something that would change that.
During the COVID season, many churches are, or were, having trouble meeting expenses. Our situation allows us to not only not have to worry about that, but we can contribute even more to ministries and people that are hurting due to many losing their jobs. That seems of much higher importance than having our “own” building, much as we would enjoy that.
In the meantime, the current facility has no mortgage, and it can support two congregations. God has allowed two smaller congregations to share facilities in a way that is not the typical arrangement, but as our culture changes, and churches grow smaller because of the falling away of cultural “Christians,” the true church will have to find ways to survive that don’t require small churches to maintain facilities that are far beyond their ability to pay for and maintain. For the right churches that are close enough in ministry philosophy and doctrine, the solution found by our two churches could be one that others may want to consider.
David Barnhart has a B.S. in Mathematics from Bob Jones University, and an M.S. in Computer Science from Clemson University and lives in the Southeastern U.S. He has served several terms as deacon in his church and also handles many of their IT needs. His full-time job is with a large silicon chip company, where he writes firmware for WiFi chips used in phones, routers, and other devices that access the internet.