What to Do If Your Church Is Becoming a Museum
In Europe, there are Gothic Cathedrals that draw visitors from all over the world. There’s one in Spain that took 400 years to build. (You thought your building campaign was long!) But, if you walk into that building today, it’s a museum.
Additionally, the U.S. is filled with grandiose churches that seat 500, but only average 12 attendees on a Sunday. Churches that were once vital, powerful places that would make a difference in the community are closing. They were the hub of the immigrants, the places where the gospel was preached, where people were married, buried and baptized. Now they’re demolished or repurposed into condos.
As a pastor in Chicago, I started to wonder, should we just abandon these buildings? Something struck my heart as I began to read scripture: What if these stained-glass window cathedrals were filled with young people attending these older churches? What if we were able to take what people sacrificed to build for the Gospel and now redeem these buildings for God?
In an era when more and more churches are closing their doors, discover what can be done to save the buildings and preserve the church’s presence in our communities.
Museum or Ministry
Not long after I started thinking about this, I was approached by Galilee Baptist Church on the north side of Chicago.
The man on the phone said, "Hi, my name is Chuck. I've been Chairman of the Board for 40 years. We've sent so many missionaries. We've seen so many people come to Christ. We had, at one time, one of the largest Sunday schools in Chicago. At one time we were like a mega-church."
He then lowered his voice and said, "But we've hit on some hard times. We're down to 25 people that meet on a Sunday morning and we're all about 75 to 80 years old. Our community now is 20-somethings. We're friendly. We invite them, but we're going to die. Can you come and help us?"
I told Chuck that I didn’t know what I could do to help, but I agreed to meet with him anyway. To make a long story short, New Life, the church I pastored, created a “restart” with Galilee Baptist. The older people that were there stayed, and many new ones came. What a powerful story of redemption, not only of people’s lives, but for the community.
Churches and cities have a shared destiny
Since Galilee Baptist, we’ve restarted 15 churches in the city of Chicago, all with pretty much the same story. The book of Haggai is similar in that it’s a story of Jerusalem in ruins. It had been ransacked by the Babylonians; the wall was down; the city infrastructure had disappeared; it was in shambles.
For 70 years this magnificent city and temple, the center of Jewish life, lay in ruins. And, it was on the heart of God, and on the heart of his restoration of the city, to go back and rebuild the temple. They understood that to rebuild the infrastructure of the city they had to start with the heart of the city, the temple.
A restart involves understanding that churches and cities have a shared destiny. As a pastor in the city of Chicago, I'm aware of the fact that we’re on a journey, and the state of the church determines, to a large part, the state of the city.
In 2018, then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel held a faith gathering at one of our church’s locations and talked to a group of 40 pastors to address the violence in Chicago. He shared that solving violence is not a civic problem, or a city hall problem. Rather, we have a spiritual problem in our city that only people of faith can speak into the heart and soul of what's wrong with our communities.
He encouraged us that we have much more influence than we think in changing the destiny of our city. He may not have realized that he was speaking prophetically into the hearts and lives of the pastors and the leaders that were there.
We know the Church of the Living God cannot be contained or defined by buildings, for the Church is the people. But sacred space—our church buildings—are a tangible way that faith integrates into and influences a community. In order for restoration of the sacred spaces to continue, there are several areas we must care about.
Valuing the past and understanding the present
Leadership that both values the history of the space, as well as envisions the future, in light of the present and the past, is what will move a church to restoration. When we do a church restart or merger, we are building on the shoulders of those who came before. To act or believe we have come enlightened and will be the best ever is prideful and presumptuous. As leaders, we need to ask God, what are you doing here? How can we cooperate? How can we honor the past, but step into the future with this church?
Helping a new generation value a bigger narrative
We need to understand we're all part of a story that God is working. You are not the end of the story, you are just another chapter in the story. It means there's not a competition between the older generation and the new generation, but rather cooperation.
Costs more and takes longer than anticipated
If you read the story of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem, they started right away and built a foundation, but then the project was interrupted for 17 years. Though they had the encouragement of Haggai and Zechariah, the task of rebuilding finally was restarted again, and they managed to finish the construction project about four years later.
Restarts are by far more complicated because you're dealing with the old, the new, the community, and the unchurched and it takes a great deal of grace to manage it well.
Generational tensions require intentional bridge building
I love church planting, but, to be honest, most church plants are full of young people or young families when they start. You'll see very few gray hairs there. Then, you go to churches that have been around a long, long time, and oftentimes it's all gray hairs and no young families.
What if you could have the beauty of both? What if we could bring in the wisdom and the beauty, the longevity of seasoned saints, yet have the life of a younger generation functioning together? Let’s work towards multi-generational churches that are less segmented and are trying to reach their community together for God.
Build on the legacy of the past, expecting a fresh new legacy
I love the verses where the prophet Haggai stops the celebration. The young people are celebrating when the new temple is dedicated, and the old people are crying when the new temple is dedicated. Haggai stops the celebration and addresses the seniors and says, "Who of you is left who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not seem to you like nothing?"
The older generation had seen the Temple of Solomon in all of its splendor and glory. They were around when it was built and had seen the Shekinah glory.
But Haggai tells them, "The glory of this present house will be greater than the glory of the former house." He was not talking about buildings, lights, structures and stained-glass windows. Rather, he was talking about the spiritual impact that they would see—the glory of God in a fresh, new, powerful way that the previous generation had never seen before. He was talking about the present anointing, what God wants to do now.
Can we see the glory of God manifest in this generation greater than what we've seen in previous generations?
Do buildings matter? Yes, they matter, and no, they don't matter that much. It's what happens in those buildings. God uses sacred spaces that say something to the community outside, to the believers inside, and to invite us all into the presence of the living God.
About Mark Jobe
Mark Jobe is the president of Moody Bible Institute and the founding pastor of New Life Community Church in the city of Chicago. He and his wife Dee have seen New Life grow from a handful of people to several thousand meeting at over 20 locations throughout the Chicagoland area with over 40 worship services each weekend and 7 cities internationally. Mark is also the founder of New Life Centers, an organization focused on helping youth in underserved areas of Chicago. He holds a Master’s degree from Moody Theological Seminary and a Doctorate degree from Bakke Graduate University. Mark is the author of UNSTUCK: Out of Your Cave into Your Call and can be heard on his daily radio program Straight Talk.