(RNS) I was working with a historic church, whose majestic facility was built long ago by wealthy industrialists.
The church needed to raise $3 million each year just for facilities maintenance and repairs, plus another $3 million to operate the church, do outreach and serve constituents.
It was an impossible task. If all members — not the 50 percent who actually donate — gave at normal giving levels, they would need 3,000 pledges, three times their most optimistic count.
Meanwhile, emergency repairs required a major capital campaign on top of the $3 million nut.
I made a suggestion: Close the doors, and worship on the front steps and yard. Let the city see your faith. Make a joyful noise.
Instead of hoping that people will wander inside at 11 a.m. on Sunday, set up healing stations on the sidewalk, set out food and coffee for passers-by, set up large screens and speakers. Do it seven days a week.
Preach a strong message in the public square, as Jesus did. Get your name out as a vibrant community of faith, not as the keeper of a monument.
My suggestion went nowhere, of course. People who worship at historic churches tend to count the facility as a primary reason to participate.
This is nothing new. Once the apostolic age ended, Christians moved indoors and have stayed there ever since. In the Western world, what we do is own buildings. Even when we do more, our buildings tend to define us.
My suggestion merits revisiting. As mainline churches adjust to declining membership and new forms of participation, the handsome space for Sunday worship is not only unaffordable, it also fails to meet emerging needs such as intimate community, study and hands-on mission.
Today’s new church start-up probably won’t ever build a sanctuary for dedicated use in worship. That will be a key element in its success.
Instead, some will rent space in a community center or school. Others will exist as a network of small groups that meet in homes, workplaces, coffee shops and outdoors.
I have seen believers worshipping in Central Park, at picnic shelters and hotel function rooms in North Carolina, in a bank building in Tennessee, as well as in countless school auditoriums.
A congregation that nurtures strong personal relationships, a compelling sense of mission and a deep desire to sing, pray and learn can meet anywhere.
A congregation that exists to keep a building open, on the other hand, is doomed. Budget talk will dominate community life. The slow decay of beloved space will strain loyalty. Prospective members will flee from capital campaigns.
What will happen if historic churches step out beyond their facilities?
Yes, many constituents will leave, because they are more invested in space than in the faith community. Decades of opening the doors rather than opening hearts and minds to God will bear sour fruit.
Those who stay will feel liberated from the burden of facilities. They will rejoice that their giving supports mission and ministry, not bricks and mortar. They will step up to serve personally.
Community life will be challenging to maintain, but not nearly so challenging as budget and space-use battles. Clergy will do what they originally felt called to do.
Our ancestors were wanderers, a people of tents and mobile shrines. We have sought to glorify God through permanent facilities. But God wants our hearts and hands for work in the world.
Meanwhile, the historic church does much good in its handsome space but still struggles financially.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
YS/MG END EHRICH