This weekend I heard part of a story that made me shudder. A megachurch. Mortgage-free. An issue arises. A split. People leave. Now there’s a mortgage. The future not as assured as it once was.
I very sincerely hope and pray that this one has a happy ending; that its best days are ahead. But it got us talking last night at dinner about the prophets of doom who predict there are going to be a long list of abandoned megachurches in North America at some point in the future. The ones who say that it’s only the personality of the founding pastor that is drawing the crowds. The experts who tell us that the move is going to be to smaller community churches and home fellowships. I hope they’re all wrong.
I mean it; well at least partly wrong. For all the negative articles in books, magazines and blogs about the downside to mass market worship, I think the specter of dozens of abandoned churches like the one in our picture above is far worse. You can take hundred-year-old churches now and turn them into trendy restaurants or antique shops, but unless a municipality arts group or a community college wants the space, it’s harder to do that with a 3,000 seat auditorium. Any decommissioned church is a sad story, but with today’s gigantic facilities, the buyers are fewer.
The scene is not totally far-fetched. Wikipedia lists 22 abandoned major shopping malls in the U.S. The internet abounds with photojournalism studies of dead malls. (That last link has literally hundreds of abandoned retail properties.) Ironically, the ideal location for megachurches and malls is identical: In suburbia at the intersection of two freeways.
The term sometimes used is Architectural Corpses. While some believe that churches which have sketchy theology are just a house of cards waiting to collapse, nobody wants to think that the congregation taught weekly by their favorite preacher would ever succumb to such a fate.
Three years ago Wade Burleson wrote:
…The pendulum is swinging back toward churches creating loose organizational structures in order to facilitate a wider array of ministries. For the next few decades, those evangelical churches that will continue to grow in numbers and Kingdom influence are those churches that spend less on facilities, learn how to worship in multiple venues and at various times, and focus more on building a network of effective small groups that collectively do missions both locally and globally. The climate and culture of the evangelical church has changed. Any church that focuses on large in-house productions, massive buildings, and ministries more conducive to “come and receive” instead of “go and give” is in for a surprise.
Let’s call it the Evangelical Fiscal Cliff.
Churches that have borrowed to build massive facilities are behind the proverbial eight ball. They must continue to focus on sustaining and maintaining the organization (utilities, repairs, staffing, and publicity to bring people into the high dollar facilities for “special events”), instead of empowering people to do the work of the ministry away from the buildings…
Most of the other articles on this topic simply use the subject as a means of attacking the doctrine of popular American pastors and churches.
In terms of church culture trends, Wade is probably correct, but an interesting thing happened here in Canada many, many years ago. They simply stopped building new shopping malls. This created a supply/demand equilibrium, and while some have indeed closed, and others are reconfigured as parts of outdoor power centers, many of the ones that remained are continuing to thrive, as evidenced by packed parking lots.
So in some respects, I know the future is going to contain a few forsaken megachurch buildings, but in general, I hope American Christianity can prove the doomsayers wrong.
Finally, I couldn’t help but pull this photo out of the files. I am sure that in its former days the members of this cathedral could never have imagined this, but what re-purposing of today’s churches exceeds our imagination? It’s sobering to consider.
- Steve Taylor 1985 song, “This Disco Used to be a Cute Cathedral”