In the interest of stewardship, is it time to rethink how we use our buildings? After salaries for clergy and administrative support, the up-keep of buildings is usually the biggest expense for our churches. In fact, deferred maintenance hangs like a millstone around the necks of many in church leadership. Whether it’s replacing the roof, making the building barrier-free, repaving the parking lot or renovating the kitchen, the costs of maintaining our physical plants are huge and becoming more pressing.
Most of our churches are single-use facilities, and Sunday is their peak day for usage. During the rest of the week, the church hall and meeting rooms may be used for Bible studies and service group gatherings; the Chancel Guild comes in on Saturday to prepare for the Eucharist; and the choir can be counted on to meet for practice on Thursday evening. The majority of our churches are fitted with pews that are bolted to the floor, and the altar is in a fixed location. Except for the music ministry – not including organs, mind you – very little is portable in the main worship space.
Church design has been remarkably static for generations, if not centuries. But is it still practical? Our use of pews makes it virtually impossible to employ the nave for anything but worship. It might be available for community prayer during the week if our church doors were open, but most are locked; the risk of theft or vandalism prohibits accessibility except if a volunteer or staff person is present.
The time has come for us to think long and hard about how we use our buildings, with whom we share them, and the frequency with which we use them. For all intents and purposes, a building that experiences the bulk of its traffic only on Sunday is not practical, especially in an era of declining attendance and increasing capital expenditure. Can we find a better way to be good stewards of them?
By reusing or reimagining the use of our church buildings, I am not suggesting that we convert churches into condominiums or theatres. My point is that we should be maximizing the use of our buildings to better proclaim the gospel and engage with our community. Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St., for example, operates a meal kitchen throughout the week that attract hundreds of needy people. This outreach effort strengthens the church community, helps define the parish’s mission and provides a valuable ministry to people in need.
Can we imagine our churches as multi-use facilities? Parts of our buildings could be used as theatres, libraries, office space, health centres and so on. We could engage the community by welcoming young people to after-school programs, study groups and fitness activities. If we removed our pews, community agencies could use the space to feed the hungry, operate drop-ins, organize yoga or fitness classes or any type of club.
Our churches could be multi-denominational. Many rural communities are burdened by large church buildings that serve declining populations. Why can’t we move in together? Why must the Anglican, United, Lutheran and Presbyterian Christians all have separate church buildings that cost a fortune to heat in the winter and require significant day-to-day maintenance?
Let’s imagine that parish council meetings are not consumed by conversations about declining revenue and increasing costs for church maintenance. Let’s imagine doing new ministry and new outreach without worrying about having to replace the boiler or put a new roof on the church. These are possible if we re-imagine how we use our church buildings, establish new congregations or contemplate how we will connect with our community.
It is not far-fetched to think that a sanctuary can house three denominations, that basketball courts be set up outdoors on church property, that the hall is rented out as office space during the week and that a blood donor clinic uses the choir loft.
If we imagine that God’s church is more than what we do on Sunday mornings, then how we use our buildings can be powerful examples of God’s enduring witness in our world. Seekers might not just find God on Sunday: they might also find the Holy Oneoly on Tuesday afternoon at the blood donor clinic.