American church spending on buildings: the good, the bad, and the ugly for where the church is, has been, and is going

So the Wall Street Journal on January 16, 2015 posted an article citing that church construction spending has gone down.  You will need an online subscription to see it in its entirety.

Church construction in the U.S. has fallen 80% since 2002, now at its lowest level since record-keeping began in 1967, according to reporting in this newspaper. The $3.15 billion in spending on religious buildings is half the level of a decade ago. Several factors are contributing to the declines, including postrecession financial challenges—religious giving has never returned to its 2007 peak—and the waning of religious affiliation.

There are a few take aways from this.

1.) We are spending less on buildings, and that could be a good thing.  Of interest is the Journal’s note that church construction has fallen to the lowest since 2002 and is half what it was a decade ago.  We don’t have the full set of data to see, but this is likely a trend.   First off, it’s a trend in line with what we know about the loss off footing the church has in our country.  More churches are closing and dying off than churches are being planted.   Secondly, this is also partially due to an increasing move of some evangelical churches towards other structures that are less building dependent.  Call them what you want cell, house, organic, missional or intentional communities, or communitases, these models over the last 15 years have encouraged a less attractional approach towards ministry.   I don’t know how successfully these churches across the landscape are transitioning disciples towards these new models, but it’s encouraging that this relative minority is even trying.

2.) We are spending less on buildings, but we still are spending too much, and that’s a bad thing.  I don’t want to take a black and white approach that says owning a building is bad.  It can definitely be used in a outwards way that blesses and props up an entire community.  The problem is few churches do that, and few churches are nestled in the kind of communities that would still be ok going near a religious organization.  So the majority of this 3.15 billion is going towards shepherding the needs of the congregation itself.

I don’t have a recent statistic on how much money was given towards mission/missions that corresponding decade, but I’m pretty sure it’s not even close to 3.15 billion.  So my beef with this exorbitant amount is that it comes at the expense of actual Kingdom expansion.  As much as we lead ourselves to believe that sitting people in chairs in a building will magically lead to evangelistic or mission numbers, I think we know better, if pressed so.  The dollar has to go SOMEWHERE, and when it goes into one budget line item, that means it didn’t go into another budget line item. Therefore, the choice is zero sum: money spent on building funds is at odds with money spent bringing Christ into new nations.   This statistic — while less than the previous decade — still shows our self-oriented, non-biblical priorities.

3.)  We are spending less on buildings, and that is part of the necessary transition for the future church.  If this trend continues as a result of a dying church or a more frugal church, then the church will be forced to make some hard choices in the near to mid future.  Some have predicted and described this trend as God’s judgment on the church and as a pruning similar to the stripping wealth chronicled in the days of the OT kings.  While this could very well be a recurring pattern of something old, it could also be something entirely new.

Whatever your personal eschatology or end times language is, could this be the end of an era and the entry into the final one?  Whatever you would call it, isn’t it obvious that we are near the end? An end where the things once available to us are scarce or no longer available? Anyone can see that we live in a time of immense change and possibilities.  Mankind is literally and figuratively filling and multiplying like never before in the earth, but the results are not always so positive. Signs of which Jesus spoke have proliferated in the last half to whole century like never before: wars, martyrs, famines, droughts, geological and natural disasters. On top of that, there has been a circling and uniting of human technology and mechanisms driven by demonic philosophies like never before (e.g., Babel Tower, Nazi concentration camps, dark matter and the international scientific community trying to produce it, etc). In the darkest times of history, both redemptive and general, such enmeshing of human and demonic have always been there, too. If we are awake and watching, as Jesus instructed us to be, then we would have noticed much of this already. We would already be doing what Peter tells us in the third chapter of his second letter: “looking forward to the day of the Lord and hurrying it along.” We would be considering the “How now should we live?” question.

We can pretend that none of it is happening, or we can up our game and reorder our  lives around it.  In particular, what does it look like to be and make/multiply disciples who can stand  in these “last days”?  We’re long past the elementary questions about what is church, how do we gather, what about kids, and how to support one’s self out of the sinking ship of church as institution.  Let’s ask the better questions of what is God doing now, where are we heading, how do I adapt, how can I be someone who makes a kingdom difference when the rules of the game have changed as far as available freedoms, resources, allies, networking, communication, intelligence, and even access?

This is not our parents’ world, but if we keep our current practices and patterns, we will continue to contribute to a statistic that will make future leaders shake their head in disgust at wasted opportunity. This generation of the West could go down as the one that wasted the most resources on things that made no difference, as the one that made the least and the unhealthiest disciples.*

The future depends on the choices we make now.


* meanwhile the global south, deprived  of our resources, is kicking our butts when it comes to being and multiplying the kind of disciples we need for this final push. But that is a subject of a different post.

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