Updated: Mar 13
The church landscape in the United States is facing a massive shift. In 2019, about 4500 protestant churches closed.1 That number will more than likely continue to grow. In my area (heart of the Bible belt), I’ve been told by denominational leaders that about ⅓ of their churches probably won’t survive more than about 5 more years! Some would say that we are making the shift from lots of small churches to fewer mega-churches. But resting in the belief that people have just shifted from smaller churches to larger ones, and that those large churches are successfully reaching our culture, would be a mistake. Barna shows us that church attendance since 2009 has been plummeting in terms of the percentage of our population who are regularly attending.2 So, the concept of fewer churches, but bigger churches is not working. One thing that has been consistent is that new churches tend to reach unreached people.3 This means that church planting is still one of the most important means we have to reach our culture.
However, there are some great hurdles that church planters face, and honestly, those hurdles are getting bigger. Finances have always been an issue when it comes to starting churches. That issue is only growing as contributions to churches have been dropping long before the pandemic. This makes it harder and harder to raise money to start a new church. For this reason, we have to be smarter in how we go about starting churches. I’ll come back to this. Another issue that has always plagued church planters is meeting space. Again, there are some creative things we can and should do, but let me point out one more problem I see.
When it comes to worship space, what happens to the buildings of the churches that are closing or barely hanging on is of the utmost importance. This is because of the way cities are developed now. Cities do not develop now like they did in the past. It used to be that if an area of town started growing a, church would pop up in the middle of that area. If you look around your city, you will likely find that not to be true now. Why? Because cities are intentionally developed now. Certain areas are marked out for retail. Certain areas are mapped out for residential. When an area begins to be developed, the value of the land in that area immediately becomes more expensive. This means that new churches will not be able to buy in those areas. That’s great for cities! That is a really smart way to go about it. But for new churches, it’s not working out very well. Some cities even refuse to allow churches in certain areas because they don’t want the property taken off the tax rolls. What this means is that allowing buildings to be sold off when churches close is a very bad idea. Regaining real estate will be very difficult. With a little intentionality, it would be easier to not lose those properties in the first place.
Let me take a one-paragraph break and fulfill my promise to come back to what it means to be smarter in how we start churches and to find cheaper meeting locations. First of all, we need to get away from the big launch concept that requires a ton of money for a full staff, a nice building, and lots of advertising up-front. We need to focus more on becoming a community of people that make disciples that make disciples so that by the time a church is ready for a public launch, there are already people regularly supporting it. Second, we need to explore more ways of planting churches, such as “cafe” style churches that meet in commercial spaces that are not open on Sunday mornings. Not every new church needs to have a building, a stage, and sit people in rows to sing and listen.
Now for the solution to our real estate issue. I heard someone several years ago say that if we could get the facilities and resources of dying churches into the hands of church planters, we could revolutionize the church world in the US. I think that is very true. Church members in churches that are dwindling and have not seen any life-change in years need to seriously consider intentionally handing off their resources while they could still be used for the Kingdom. Many churches wait until there are 5 people left and everything in the bank account has been spent to keep the lights on and the lawn mowed and then decide to close. At that point, the building may be handed over to a denomination or just sold and the proceeds go over to the denomination or another non-profit. Denominations are often not prepared to start a new church in those buildings, so they will often be sold off and the money will go into the local denomination account where it will eventually dissipate.
Denominations and local associations need to be prepared (constantly training church planters even on the local level) to put church plants back in these buildings. Many times denominational church planting funds are directed at church planting in larger cities, ignoring the fact that we are losing ground (literally) in small towns as well. If a denomination or local association is not prepared to use a building, they should consider giving it or selling it for a deep discount to a church plant that is not with their “tribe.” At this point, tribalism is not a winning approach to the crisis we are facing.
Another approach that local associations could take is to work with their healthy churches to be prepared to spin off “campuses” in these buildings. Some denominations are uncomfortable with having hard conversations with their local churches that are struggling because their churches are autonomous. That is an issue that has to be solved. Consulting with dying churches needs to become a major emphasis for local associations. You aren’t telling them what they have to do by being honest with them about their situation. Leaders of dying churches could also take this approach. At one point, a church in our area that was struggling came to us and asked if we would take their church over as a campus. As we listened and investigated, we came up with a different solution that has worked well, but I have massive respect for church leaders that would do something like that. Many times the leaders of the dying church struggle to truly give up control, but that was not the case with this group! With a measure of humility, generosity, and honest self-evaluation, massive Kingdom growth can happen!