Faith in the future

“We shape our buildings; thereafter, they shape us.” 

Winston Churchill’s pithy point isn’t lost on the church these days. In case you’ve missed it, the Lakewood Advocate reported this month on a growing trend of churches that have declined in membership to the point where they are either closing, merging or “repurposing” their buildings.

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Participation in American congregations has dipped in the last half century across the religious spectrum, along with financial contributions. Churches and their related institutions are shutting, physically and spiritually. Some buildings that once housed vibrant worship, education and fellowship are becoming albatrosses that drag down the mission of congregations because of unmanageable maintenance or debt.

A New Orleans pastor colleague, Elizabeth Lott, comments on this trend in her town: “There’s been a $22 million restoration of the Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church and School in the historic Marigny neighborhood. Their website touts, ‘The former school house, rectory, church and convent have each been carefully restored and repurposed for new congregants.’ The new congregants, of course, are patrons and tourists.

“This is not a one-off. This is not the story of one congregation and school that could not survive in a changing neighborhood. I can have lunch at Vessel Restaurant, a 100-year-old, formerly Lutheran church; attend an afternoon wedding at Felicity Church, a popular event venue in a deconsecrated Methodist church; drop by a cocktail party at St. Alphonsus, a formerly Irish Catholic church built in 1855; then round out the day with dinner at Hotel Peter and Paul. And that’s only one day in one city.”

As we confront this unwelcome trend, we should remember that everything changes. All things in this life are subject to decay and death. While rooted in the past, faith always tips us toward the future. At our best, the faithful look for signs of new life in the places of death. We don’t allow ourselves to lose hope when things decline.

The Gaston Christian Center is a beautiful example of how to repurpose church buildings. The congregation moved from its Gaston Avenue location, adjacent to Baylor Hospital, when the people could no longer sustain the buildings. They sold to Criswell College, which continues to operate there. They moved to Royal Lane and Greenville Avenue, hoping to restart in a younger, thriving neighborhood. When they realized they were not going to survive the next generation, they deeded their property to a newly created nonprofit that incubates several ethnic congregations and hosts a medical and dental clinic for the poor, a refugee ministry, an urban institute and other enterprises that bless our community.

The Gaston church was always mission minded, and it still is. Instead of seeing their buildings secularized into commercial ventures, they repurposed their space into a place of common grace. The legacy of the church’s missional history survives in a new form and will outlive the church itself.

Maybe we can amend Churchill: “We reshape our buildings; thereafter, they reshape our world.”