Admit it – on a weekday at some point somewhere, you were driving by church after church with 1 or 2 cars in the parking lot noticing that all of those buildings sit largely idle six days a week. If you wondered whether that’s a responsible use of donated dollars, you’re not alone. Many Christians and non-believers alike question the stewardship of such poor capacity utilization – so don’t feel bad if that question popped into your head.
A company would close and sell any facility that was only well utilized one or two days per week. Many of us who don’t own second or third homes consider the ultra-rich irresponsible for spending so much on properties they only visit a few weeks per year. We ask in disgust, “Wow, just imagine how many families in need those wasted dollars could have helped?” So if most of us wouldn’t pay a mortgage on a house we lived in only 15% of the time, shouldn’t we expect churches to be better stewards than the ultra rich?
Some may argue that church is not a business or house, so that’s not a fair comparison. They may correlate a church building instead to a drama theater where performances only take place on weekends. Hopefully you see the problem with that line of reasoning – church is not meant to be a production, but it is the Lord’s house. God gave explicit instructions for the design of the temple that Solomon built and the tabernacle that Moses built. He’s fine with building projects – but He’s not ok with a relatively barren sanctuary, classrooms and property 6 days per week. The Lord wants His house to be utilized at all times to its maximum potential doing His work.
Let’s look at 10 questions that will help you determine whether your church is a faithful steward of member giving and of the facilities the Lord has entrusted to it…
- Was community engagement and service a consideration in the design or purchase of the buildings and grounds? Church planting and building consultants bring floor plans, recommended dimensions, seating capacity calculations, sanctuary layouts, parking requirements and even standard church aisle widths. However, they don’t bring models for how to optimize utilization of the facilities to maximize Kingdom impact throughout the entire week. Consultants want to get paid and there’s no money in a church building consultant not defining church as the building. Yet the evaluation criteria for church property are quite different when members (and not the building) are seen as the embodiment of church and the goal is to equip and send disciples out of that building. The bottom line is that if the design isn’t ideal for intensive, personal discipleship and community outreach all week long, don’t buy or build it.
- Is church leadership seeking to maximize capacity utilization to be a better steward of its real estate? Studies are needed of how to deploy available space throughout the entire week, with models taking into consideration discipleship needs, community issues, existing ministries, potential partnerships, decentralization opportunities, etc. Notice that none of those variables dominate capacity utilization discussions today, which are centered around weekend services. The potential is tremendous for dedicating space Monday through Friday to ministry incubation and reaching out to the public through career coaching, tutoring, recovery ministries, parenting and marriage courses, health and wellness classes, etc. – all geared toward demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ and His Church to a waiting and watching world.
- Does the church have many members on campus every day of the week? A Great Commission and Great Commandment driven church should have a crowded parking lot day and night – and not just staff preparing for weekend services but church members and attenders doing deep-dive discipleship classes, prayer meetings, worship, family gatherings, and community engagement activities. It’s poor stewardship to reserve such a big space for a weekly gathering and not find a way to do as much ministry as possible in that space after weekend services are over. Our blog post last week explains how that space came to be so underutilized as contemporary church practices have shifted the workload from members to staff and redefined church as a place and an event.
- Are many non-members also on the property each week for (or as a result of) some kind of community engagement or outreach initiative? Throughout history, church buildings buzzed with activity. Church was the center of town – the food bank, homeless shelter and support system for communities. Today, public perception of churches suffers because they no longer lead with compassion, as Jesus did. Even in wealthier communities where needs are not so obvious, there are still a host of opportunities for churches to become a tractor beam of light, drawing people in for help and hope – alcohol abuse, rocky marriages, parenting problems, depression, poor health, etc.
- If your church were struggling (and over 90% aren’t growing today), would your leadership consider alternative options or fight to keep the institutional model intact? Busy buildings during the week are also usually filled on the weekends. However, what if weekend crowds are dwindling too despite prolonged efforts and tactics to revitalize a shrinking congregation? That’s not an uncommon story these days. Would the pastor start to realize that maintaining such a large space for a small crowd is as irresponsible as a small family living in an enormous home? We’ve seen many plateaued churches reach that conclusion and convert to compassion ministries. However, we’ve seen others not address the root cause of their challenges (i.e. failure to build disciples who mightily impact those around them) but instead cling to their properties by finding alternative sources of revenue (e.g. selling land or using the property to run a side “business”).
- Are the size of the congregation and budget no longer seen as reliable measures of church “health”? Does your church gauge success by nickels and noses? Or is “health” defined as Kingdom impact using metrics like the # engaged in discipleship, # of ministries launched, # of families outside church being served, and % of budget invested in reach the “lost”? Many ambitious churches with plans for multi-site expansion look for “dying” churches to take over, thereby increasing another size-based indicator – “footprint”. But if we measure “footprint” by impact for Christ and not square footage or membership, then planting a new church with the same flawed, internally-focused model as the “mother ship” isn’t truly “taking ground” for the Kingdom.
- Is your church actively decentralizing by empowering members to BE the church, decreasing dependence on a central campus to DO church? “Taking ground” requires leverage created by redefining members as church and equipping them for bold, productive ministry. There are countless ways to decentralize and empower such as launching one-on-one or triad discipleship, house churches, neighborhood groups and mission-shaped communities. Setting aside classroom space for those initiatives is great, but maybe Starbucks or Panera are better (and certainly lower cost) options. Listen carefully to whether your church leaders are characterizing church as a place or honestly conveying the truth – that anytime we talk and act together with other believers, we are “doing” church right there, wherever we are.
- Is your church saddled with mortgage debt and having difficulty paying it off? High, fixed costs create mixed motives. We can’t serve God and money, but more church debt increases the odds of compromise – such as inadvertently treating members like “customers”, attracting and retaining (by asking less of them and doing more for them) versus equipping and sending them (asking more of them).
- Is your church reallocating budget away from infrastructure, salaries and putting on a weekend production toward personalized discipleship and following Jesus’ model of leading with compassion? Church leaders can’t simply talk “prayer, care and share”; they must put their money where their proverbial mouth is. That entails reallocating the church’s budget to generously fund discipleship and member-led local ministry efforts. To drive impact through capacity utilization, a church must stand behind its commitment to make disciples who make disciples and underwrite externally-focused groups. Without a proper definition of “church” (as people, the “ekklesia”) and the “customer” (as the “lost” all believers are called to pursue), a church won’t make the hard decision to redistribute resources away from facilities.
- Is the church investing in innovating to deliver content and engage the community in ways that are intended to reach more people, reduce costs and diminish reliance on buildings? People drive in Sunday morning, stay for a non-interactional presentation, possibly hang around a few minutes afterward to chat, then head home. That single sermon cannot deliver the depth needed by mature Christians because pastors have to design messages to accommodate the mix of maturity levels within the congregation. Aren’t tailored messages based on discipleship progress more efficiently delivered while people are out exercising or driving to work? There’s been little innovation in (or adoption by churches of) content delivery vehicles for discipleship or for serving others. Technology vendors invest in building solutions that churches have set aside budget to purchase, so there is significant innovation in online streaming of conventional church services, but little around discipleship or local missions (besides Meet The Need).
It’s Your Turn
How did we get in this situation where church buildings are so underutilized? A former Senior Pastor told me last week he was astonished driving through Lynchburg, VA (home of Liberty University) at how much unoccupied real estate was tied up in the form of church buildings. Is there any connection to how hard seminaries recruit aspiring pastors, who soon graduate looking for a church to run hoping eventually to reach the point of ultimate ministry validation – building or expanding facilities?