Last week the First Presbyterian Church at Tower Hill in Red Bank, NJ, was closed due to a structural problem in the steeple. Luckily members of the church saw the leak and crack in the roof, and the church leadership was quick to act by bringing in a structural engineer to address the issue. They are working closely with the construction crews and inspectors, and hope to be open again for worship on Sunday.
At a meeting last week in New Brunswick Presbytery, a teaching elder accused us all of denying the real issue facing the Church … our buildings.
At last night’s Committee on Ministry meeting in Monmouth Presbytery we heard of serious financial struggles in at least two congregations caused by the stress of large mortgage payments on relatively recent building upgrades. And there are more.
Congregations often don’t see themselves as a “real church” until or unless they have a building of their own. New Church pastors tell stories of potential visitors say things like “when you get a building, we’ll be there!” And declining congregations will let a pastor go before they will consider selling their building or moving to a more “right-sized” space. Pulpit supply pastors tell me about the challenges of preaching in large sanctuaries filled with a couple dozen people spread throughout the room. In some cities like New York City declining congregations who cannot afford to pay a full-time pastor are inhabiting buildings worth millions of dollars.
My favorite “church building” story, though, comes from when I was on staff of the Presbytery of New Covenant. A non-presbyterian man from a small town outside of Houston called to ask if the presbytery was planning on reopening the church near him. He said, it had closed in the 1970’s, and if we’d just open it again, he there might be some people there who would go to church there. As a new church specialist, I told him that we’d be happy to “open” the building, if there were a group of people who wanted to be a church there. I never heard from him again.
Perhaps it’s the word. We all know that a “church” is not a “steeple” but the “people.” Yet, we tend to think of buildings when we hear the word. Google images of church and we see, of course, church buildings, steeples, bell towers, pews, etc.
There is certainly value in the sacred space of sanctuaries, the iconic presence of a steeple in a community, and the peace that tolls through a neighborhood with a carillon in a bell tower. But, a building is a tool for ministry, not the ministry itself. When a sanctuary becomes, in and of itself, something to preserve, it is a museum or historical monument, not a church. It may be a sacred place or a place of reverence, but it is not “alive” with a body of believers. A faithful church will use the building to bless the community, not just an hour on Sundays, but all week long. If our churches are not being used to bless the community, then it’s no wonder city or township governments question zoning, usage, and tax statuses of church owned buildings.
The building is a tool for the ministry of a congregation. Today many of our congregations are attempting to tap a picture hanger into the wall with a sledge hammer. We have tools which are too big and too powerful for the job we’re actually doing. Are we so tired trying to swing the sledge hammer that we never get the picture hung?
The Red Bank community is affected now that the tower Hill church is closed for repair. It’s news. The preschool is closed. Meetings aren’t happening. The Presbyterians are worshipping in Methodist space. The work is being completed as quickly as possible, with the cooperation of the borough, and mindful of the safety of the people. The steeple is massive, reaching 118 feet to the sky. It is not only picturesque, but a message to those who pass by … a reminder of the presence of Christ followers, the worship of God, the healing of the Spirit. It has value, but without the body of Christians who worship, pray, serve, and minister there to the larger community, it is not the Church.
So, is your church’s building the right size tool for the ministry your congregation is called to? If not, there are options … ways to allow our “sledge hammers” to be a legacy for the work God is up to now in our midst … ways to reimagine the work we’re called to do through our building tool … ways to repurpose the tool …