Right-Purposing Your Mission Center (formerly known as a church building)
Updated: Jan 29
I have had the pleasure of visiting numerous archeological ruins around the world. Each one is its own time-machine, pulling the visitor into our shared human past. We can see the particularities of design and function. From a 10,000 year old grain storage silo in Jericho to the intricate details of a Roman bathhouse in Bath, England, each structure had a unique and defined purpose for its time and place.
That these sites are known as ruins is an important detail. It isn’t simply that they are remnants of something that was destroyed, although some were. Often these are places left to the dust because they have long since outlived their intended purpose for use. For many of these sites, something was built on top of them to take advantage of the foundations that were in place. For others, they were simply abandoned having no capacity to serve a new purpose.
I work with churches of all shapes and sizes around the country helping them to take deep dives into their sense of holy purpose. In other words, why do they exist? For centuries, the organized church existed out of a place of entitled position. It wasn’t in need of defending itself or defining why it existed. It simply lived with the sense that it is supposed to exist. All this has changed in the last century – a change which has dramatically accelerated in the 21st Century. Expanding and shifting world views are driving a new kind of religious pluralism. The church is now faced with new challenges. It must both defend its place in the world, as well as more deeply embrace its very reason for being. It’s very difficult when those muscles have been atrophying for centuries.
This struggle is most evident when churches find themselves with facilities that are tired, worn, and have outlived their intended purposes. No longer are the three-story education wings filled with hundreds of children anxiously awaiting their next lesson from their beloved Sunday School teacher. No longer are the 300 pews in the sanctuary filled to capacity. Many churches are empty 95% of the time, or have been completely closed off to save on energy bills.
When church leaders are made to face these difficult realities, often they are left scratching their heads. Where have all the people gone? Why aren’t they showing up to worship and participating in our educational opportunities? What are we going to do to fill this place once again?
These aren’t bad questions. But we are asking the wrong ones. Just as archeological sites encourage you to look into the past and see what function these ruins served for those long-ago communities, church leaders must look at their empty buildings in the same way. Our buildings are not what an archeologist would call ‘in ruins’ but many of our facilities have lived long past their intended purpose. They are empty, unused, left to the dust. We may long for a return of the past in which the pews were filled, and the community vibrant and growing. But ruins are ruins. They have served their intended purpose in their intended time, and that time has passed.
So, what does the church do?
An early response was to become a “church without walls”. This idea gathered momentum because it gave the impression that the church could exist without all the hassles of a building or buildings. It also sought to create a culture in which its mission was not organized around a “place” but rather its members. This wasn’t a bad philosophy. But the underlying impulse behind this was to find a way to eliminate the responsibility of a building.
But this didn’t really work. It didn’t bring people in. Primarily because it isn’t about whether you have walls or not. It is about whether you have a clear sense of your holy purpose; a conviction for why you exist in the first place. When this is in place and fully embraced, a church is equipped with the framework to make decisions for how to live into that purpose effectively. That may mean having a facility, or it may not. The answer isn’t just being free from a building. It is being free in having a true sense of purpose for existing.
Rather than hoping to be a “church without walls”, another way to look at this facility struggle is to ask, “how can we ‘right-purpose’ these facilities?” I say “right-purposing” for a reason. The more common phrase is “re-purposing”. I want to contend that it is not about “re-purposing”, but “right-purposing”. “Right-purposing” forces you to look at your ministry site and figure out how it aligns with your sense of mission. Re-purposing doesn’t necessarily include the element of missional identity. Instead, it tends to focus on rethinking how this space can be used for other purposes. Should we rent or lease? Should we sell or downsize? These questions may, or may not, lead you to having the “right-purpose” for your ministry facility. However, if you start looking at this question through the lens of why you exist, you are more likely to find an answer that aligns with your holy purpose and enables it to be more impactful.
A third way of looking at the facility challenge for churches is called “social entrepreneurial”. This idea invites church leaders to look at rethinking their facilities in a way that is entrepreneurial in its nature, (i.e. revenue generating), and serves a social purpose that reflects the missional identity of the congregation. Some churches have opened thrift stores that help serve the needs of those facing financial challenges. These initiatives can help honor those in such circumstances by not just giving handouts, but by providing needed items at very low costs. The clients benefit from the low cost items and the church benefits from the revenue that is generated. Most often, that revenue is used to continue the operation of the store or fund other ministry initiatives. It is totally a win/win enterprise that utilizes ministry space and serves a very needed social purpose.
Churches will continue to face these challenges of what to do with worn out and tired facilities for decades to come. Asking the right questions when addressing these issues will be critical. Discovering what your holy purpose, or missional identity, is for this time and place is an important first step. Doing so lets you more clearly answer how your ministry site can be “rightly-purposed” to serve that mission long into the future.