America is littered with churches—ranging architecturally from multi-million dollar “campuses,” replete with huge auditoriums, meeting halls, and classrooms to humbler edifices with little more than a sanctuary and an office. However, what nearly all of them have in common is that a majority of their space sits dark and vacant six days of the week.
Now, many of these churches have thriving ministries in the community, doing excellent work with the poor and heartbroken. So why does the empty space matter, if ministry happens regardless? First, because that space is uniquely suited to work that too rarely occurs in church communities today, but more simply, because empty auditoriums hulking beside highways are dismal intimations that a church chiefly desires to fill thousands of seats every Sunday for an inspirational set of laser-drenched praise songs. How can we redeem our buildings, gargantuan or otherwise? Here are a few ideas our local faith congregations should consider adopting, ones that will truly transform their cities:
Language / Vocational / Remedial Classes
With rooms sitting empty every night of the week, there would plenty of space in most churches for volunteers to lead classes in Spanish, Mandarin, or koine Greek, or in technical and life-skills—computer proficiency, literacy, algebra, sewing, etc. In an effort to build—rather than merely inhabit—culture, groups could read Dante, Flannery O’Connor, or St. Augustine; study painting or music or film; engage and debate political controversies. Imago Dei Church in Portland, OR offers a possible model: their congregation has set aside space for an “Arts Loft,” which provides “a working studio and part-time gallery,” and “also provides artists with a flexible space for small gatherings, shows, and throwing paint around. The Loft’s flatbed scanner and 18"x22" giclee printer are also available for community use, by arrangement.”
Office Space for Fledgling Charities
How many times have you and your friends mused about founding a charitable organization? How many do you know who actually made the leap and started something? Churches could dramatically lower the barriers to entry for creative individuals by providing free or discounted space in which to work and meet. This is particularly true in urban areas, where the only alternatives to renting expensive office space are crowded apartments and coffee shops. In today’s media-driven world, churches could provide these groups an additional boon by offering the use of their technological resources (expensive design programs and video-editing software spring to mind). Even churches that rent their offices are pioneering this collaboration: for months, Trinity Grace Church in New York City shared its cramped Clinton walk-up with the founders of Restore NYC, a group devoted to rescuing and rehabilitating sex-trafficked women in New York. Restore founder Faith Huckel said, “I could not have developed this organization without the help and support of Trinity Grace Church …Today we serve 23 women (mostly from China and Korea).”
Whether in Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement, Karl Barth and the Barmen Declaration, or Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, the Church has a rich twentieth-century heritage of political engagement. Dr. Robert Carle, author of Signs of Hope in the City, describes the power of organization: “If an individual contacts a politician to complain about subway lighting, he’s not going to get very far. But if he calls as a representative of a coalition of 20.000 church members, he has a lot of clout.” However, Carle cautions that churches should not try to duplicate the methods of 50’s and 60’s activism, calling them an “obsolete model” for political change in communities that primarily need economic development. Instead, he points to the rising tide of urban church organizations—such as Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, or South Bronx Churches—that have begun providing jobs, affordable housing, and low-interest loans. Some create charter schools, or pool resources to lend to those without credit. “Many people use this money to start businesses in their homes,” says Carle, “cooking food in their apartments and selling it on the streets. Some even fill a basement with water and raise fish to sell commercially.”
The first step toward redeeming these empty buildings is a serious, imaginative, and church-wide conversation. So, excited, frustrated church member, be bold in making this a subject of serious discussion among your friends and family. If you have an idea for how to put the church building to use, advocate for it with your church leaders, and be specific—your request for space will meet a kinder reception if you can explain to your pastor exactly what you would do, who might join you, how you plan to cover expenses, and what you need from the church.
Imagine that on a typical Thursday morning at your church, a group of parishioners came and went throughout the day alongside the staff: a man who manages a Barnes and Noble at night raising funds for flood victims in India, a woman working to build a network of support for poor single mothers, a group of college students publishing an upstart literary journal. That evening, a group of thirty or so gathers in an activities hall to process applications from townsfolk for micro-loans. In other parts of the building, a lawyer volunteers time helping homeowners navigate re-financing, foreclosure, and bankruptcy; a Chinese engineer teaches would-be missionaries to speak Mandarin; and a strange mixture of young and old, rich and poor reads and discusses Paradise Lost. This scenario is admittedly improbable, but it is far from impossible, if gifted Christians learn to pool their talents and resources for the work of grace in their communities.