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Property Issues in the 21st Century
By: Bill Easum

I believe the 21st century will be more like the 1st century than the 20th. If this is so, then Christianity’s understanding of property will undergo profound change. What property was to the 20th century, relationships and community are to the 21st century. That spells trouble for most of the traditional ways of approaching church property. The use of property isn’t a very sexy issue, nor has it been considered to be important to transformational leadership, at least not until recently. Now, with the rapid changes of today, how congregations use their property is becoming one of the issues that sets the innovative congregation apart.

There was a day when the "field of dreams" mindset worked. Erect a new building and people came no matter what went on inside. It was the thing to do back then. Today, additional parking or new facilities seldom cause a congregation to grow; however, the lack of parking or space can hinder the growth of a congregation.

On the other hand, if something worthwhile is going on inside the congregation before the space addition, people do tend to flock to new facilities. Case in point is Southeast Christian Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Its attendance jumped from 9,000 to 13,000 the Sunday they moved into their then-new $95 million plant.

In the same way, if a congregation is alive and feeding its people and runs out of room, the lack of facilities can stifle the growth. So, facilities can make a difference even if they aren’t sexy.

Space as Metaphor
The space in which we worship betrays our understanding of the world around us. Consider the following examples. To build today in the Western world without taking into account the importance of visuals and sound in worship is like building our faith upon the sand. Yet many congregations are still building space without taking into account the new technology. As such, they betray their lack of understanding of the times.

To choose to worship in a storefront or a bar may be far more than a lack of money. It could mean that the worshiping group wants to reach a group of people who are turned off by the traditional religious trappings. To choose to use art extensively throughout a facility could be an attempt to acknowledge the growing place art plays in the postmodern world.

Options for Congregations Stuck With Already Designed Space
Many congregations are saddled with the following situation. The congregation has been declining for 30 years. The average attendance is under 150, and the average age of those attending is approaching 60. The church sits on two acres of land. The facilities include a sanctuary, education building, offices, and a small fellowship hall. The hallways are narrow and dark. The sanctuary is on a different level from the education building, which means more than one set of stairs throughout the facilities, and there aren’t any ramps or elevator. The area around the church has turned over at least once in the past 30 years and the schools are full. The white population is declining.

What are some of the property options for this congregation?
• Continue to do nothing and die
• Remodel and die
• Add ramps and an elevator
• Develop a new direction of ministry while at the same time making the building accessible to all ages
• Begin a satellite ministry several blocks from the present location aimed at reaching a younger generation and perhaps be less white
• Decide to become a multiracial congregation
• Begin a new congregation in the area and prepare for the closing of the Mother church
• Invite into the facilities a church planter more indigenous to the changing neighborhood
• Sell the property to an indigenous ministry and move out

Options for Congregations Wanting to Expand
The typical case I see is where an old established church, often started in the 1960s begins to grow because of the efforts of a new energetic, outgoing, transformational pastor. Usually the church has four acres or less and has reached the point where it is out of room for both parking and worship space. The sanctuary plans show it can seat about 300 people at 20 inches per person and has 100 parking spaces. There is a sanctuary, educational space, offices, and a fellowship hall/gymnasium that will seat comfortably 350 people. The church worships at 8:30 with 75 people and 11:00 with 250 people.

When the 11:00 service begins, there isn’t room for a family of four to find a seat together except on the first row of pews. All of the educational space is used to 100% capacity on an average Sunday. The buildings are spread out with lots of green space and trees in between. The church sits on a major six-lane highway where over 100,000 cars pass each day. The pastor is in her fifth year, and there is minimum to mild conflict developing among the long-term older leaders.

What are the options for this congregation?
• Do nothing and stagnate
• Build a larger sanctuary on the present grassy areas
• Sell the property and relocate
• Buy any adjacent land at any price
• Buy any adjacent land only if the price is right
• Begin a third worship service during Sunday School
• Stay where they are and purchase property in another section of the city and begin a satellite ministry and become a church in two locations with the option of relocating in ten or more years
• Send away 100 to 150 people to plant a new congregation in the area and begin rebuilding the mother congregation
• Begin a third worship service during Sunday School and do one or more of the following: develop one, two, and three hour parking lots; hire an off-duty police person to facilitate in and out traffic; develop a parking lot team of servants to help people find parking; shuttle the key leaders to and from a nearby unused on Sunday parking lot; cut down the trees and pave over the grassy areas

Innovative Ways to Do Ministry Without Buying Buildings
More and more ministry is being attempted now without purchasing buildings. The two most successful I know of are Saddleback and New Hope Christian Fellowship. Saddleback had over 50 rented locations and over 5,000 in attendance before it purchased its present property. New Hope Christian Fellowship grew to over 7,000 in five years in a rented school auditorium. The only property they own is for a Ministry Center that it could use during the week for training and offices.

Here are some of the options I am seeing:
• Use someone else’s space and rent
• House churches are growing
• Cell churches
• Small group churches
• Congregations in bars
• Storefront churches
• Café churches

Foundational Nuts and Bolts
• Educational space never pays for itself. If you need both educational and worship space, build worship.
• Mergers never work unless all present property is sold, new property purchased and a new name is found that is not hyphenated.
• People need 24 inches to sit on.
• You can only use 80% of anything on an average day.
• You can usually raise 25-40% more for construction if you hire someone from the outside to do your capital fund drive.
• Avoid a debt of more than 28% of your budget or an amount more than twice your budget.
• You need one off street parking space for every two people on the property at the peak hour.
• It’s hard to raise money to pay off an existing debt.
• It takes about an acre for every 100 people in worship today.
• Organized congregations can have as little as 10 minutes in between worship services if they have adequate parking and flow in and out of the worship area.

Bill Easum is the founder and president of 21st Century Strategies, Inc. a full-service church consulting group since 1987 whose mission is to equip Christians for global impact, www.effectivechurch.com.  

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