The bad economy has had mixed effect on churches and houses of worship. It’s been good for some, filling the pews with those who forget about God when times are good, but it’s also led to massive losses by religious organizations and institutions and even led some houses of worship to be seized by creditors.
Fortunately it has stopped the church-cum-condo craze.
In this recession, however, a growing number of hard-hit churches are struggling to pay rents and mortgages. That has some thinking about the formerly unthinkable: being a church without a building – and they are getting encouragement from building-free congregations who wouldn’t have it any other way.
Since the economic downturn began, six financially stressed churches in various states have sought advice from The Well in California’s Orange County. It’s a 57-year-old Southern Baptist congregation that quit its $5,000-per-month lease in 2005 and formed what has become a network of five house churches. Sensing a need among financially strapped churches, Pastor Ken Eastburn in April launched a website – leavethe buildingblog.com – to assure struggling churches there’s spiritual life after bricks and mortar.
“We didn’t really start out encouraging churches to do this, but people who would hear our story started to contact us over the last year,” says Pastor Eastburn, whose church has grown from 50 to 75 members since leaving its rented facility. “If this model is something that works, and if we can help other churches [adopt it], then maybe this is what God has us doing right now.”
Churches that are partially or entirely building-free come in a variety of forms:
•The one-year-old Origin Community Church meets in a Rocklin, Calif., coffeehouse. Childcare happens in a retrofitted school bus and a motor home parked outside.
•The Outdoor Church, launched last summer in West Virginia’s Hampshire County, meets at least once a month on hiking trails, in canoes, or in another adventurous natural setting.
•Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, Calif., is saving millions of dollars by expanding into an outdoor amphitheater rather than a new building.
For growing numbers of churches, out-of-the-building thinking has become a necessity. Evangelical Christian Credit Union in Brea, Calif., services some 1,000 ministry loans and has foreclosed on nine churches since the economic downturn began. It expects to foreclose on two more this year, according to spokesperson Jac La Tour. From inception in 1964 until 2007, the ECCU had never had a foreclosure.
ECCU told me that much when I spoke with them 18 months ago. Back then, they said they had stayed out of trouble by not offering home loans and were not concerned about their church clients struggling to make payments. Whether they were being optimistic, naive or expedient is difficult to say. But the consequences of ignorance, greed and poor financial planning—not the Jews—poses challenging questions about what happens to a church when the church facility no longer exists—especially when government officials are hassling you for holding a home Bible study.
I’m sitting in a coffee shop now as I write about this article, and I can confirm that no church groups are currently here. But I don’t know whether whether any of the coffee talk is being exchanged between two or more Christians. If so, well, then I guess the Church is at the Starbucks by LAX, too.