Some of the world’s biggest and most beautiful buildings are churches. But they are also among its emptiest.
Church reports indicate that in Great Britain more than a quarter of churches have fewer than 20 worshippers on a Sunday, and in rural areas this number slips to fewer than 10. In America less than 20% of people regularly attend church. These startling figures are repeated around the globe.
Any building needs maintenance, but churches—with their beautiful stained glass windows and hardwood pews—require a certain kind of love and care. This maintenance, alongside other costs such as heating and lighting, can add up to a considerable amount. Left alone these buildings may slowly start to rot, and then shut.
It’s time for an intervention.
There are four key ideas in this post, designed to help you make the most of your church building, and in turn give the most to your congregation.
1. Give your church building another use
Part of my job as a Church Management Solution provider is talking to churches about what works, what doesn’t work, and what is making them a success. What I’ve learned from those conversations is that the obvious answer is to steadily convert church buildings to host local community activities that are struggling to stay afloat. Survival of the most adaptable, you could say.
Though many people are not religious, and do not use a church for religious purposes, 85% of the British public visits a church every year. We consider them museums, art galleries, concert halls, and peaceful retreats. This diversification is already being pioneered.
Far from shutting to become shops or warehouses, many churches are hosting a wide range of cultural meetings and activities. Some churches already host village shops, farmers markets, food banks, post offices, and Wi-Fi cafes. They are making the most of their valuable resources to become an indispensible part of their surroundings. An empty room is a waste, but it can be put to good use for both the local community and church finances.
Furthermore, allowing third parties to hire out your room can lead to many of the unreached building a relationship with the church.
Imagine, for example, a woman named Mary. Though Mary, a non-practicing theist, would never have chosen to attend a church service, she did attend a local concert held at St. Peter’s. She was then invited to a birthday party which was held there, too. Gradually she got to know some of the St. Peter’s staff. She liked them and the building and decided that, although she wasn’t ready for a service yet, she’d like to explore her beliefs at the church coffee morning. A few months later, St. Peter’s welcomed Mary as its newest member.
Many churches I have spoken to feel that the hiring out of their facilities has been an essential part of their growth and development. Some have used the funds merely to stay financially afloat, others have been so successful that they have been able to fund many additional projects they could otherwise not afford.
For those who feel uncomfortable about the idea of renting space to a third party, and ask if churches must survive at the detriment of religion, a reverend I spoke to recently put it well. While stressing that the church must engage with the ordinariness of everyday life, Father Jeffrey (of St John’s Waterloo, London) says “Anything that draws people into a church building (especially in these days where so few attend or fully understand church) has to be welcomed.” He is not alone in this thinking.
2. Open, active fundraisers
This one seems obvious, I know. But I don’t mean little fundraisers where you ask your regular attendees to donate what they can at the end of a service. I mean using your church building to host a fantastic event which reaches as many people as physically possible.
The requires total utilization of your resources. I mean digital newsletters, advertisements on your website, social media, etc.; as well as the more traditional word-of-mouth and fliers approach. This is where a church management system really comes in handy. The church must speak to people in the medium which they have come to expect, and today that is digital. Not only does this make you more likely to reach more people but it is also exactly the demographic that the church seems to be struggling to attract: teenagers and young adults.
By hosting an event (such as a summer fair or concert) that is well advertised and open to everyone, you are more likely to see a significant amount being raised. You can charge for entry, food and drink, raffle tickets, etc. in addition to asking for donations. Best of all, these people are becoming more engaged with your church building.
A second key point is that during these fundraisers you can’t hide how important this money is for the survival of your church. People are much more likely to donate to a cause which they think is pressing. If they knew that each year in America more than 4,000 churches close their doors (compared to just over 1,000 new church starts), they might see the urgency in your request and dig a little deeper.
3. Create connections with other churches
Another way to help your church building flourish is to buddy up to your neighboring churches and pool your resources. Church A could have a great sound system, but no handbells. Church B, just 3 km away, could have the opposite problem. By sharing these resources each church can hold a more diverse and higher quality range of events… which in turn can raise more income. The resources don’t even have to be physical. It could be the use of a particularly tech savvy staff member, or volunteers who are willing to help both churches.
Pooling your resources with other churches could also lead to more meaningful relationships. Collaboration begets innovation, and sharing resources could lead to sharing ideas and events. You will be able to learn from each other’s success stories.
4. Invest in your church building
This might sound a bit counter-intuitive, but bear with me. If you look at any successful retail brand, you will see that they remodel their stores on average every 3-6 years. There is a good (and simple) reason for this: people like new and people like efficient.
Now think, when was the last time your church building had a major makeover? It is much less likely to look like 3-6 years and more likely to look like 15-20 years. You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression on people, so when your congregation first reaches your church you want them to feel a sense of pride and awe. You want that awe to continue when they see you use a digital hymn sheet rather than a printed version (how very environmentally sustainable of you!) and have a great sound system which gives your choir a beautiful resonance.
If you invest in your building, people should be impressed. This will lead them to visit more and generally be more engaged. More engagement leads to higher donations, which leads to less financial worry. A self-fulfilling prophecy maybe?
But, of course, the most important thing you can do for your church building is make it a loving, safe, and welcoming place for all your parishioners. Without that, the tips above mean nothing.
“A house is made with walls and beams. A home is made with love and dreams.”
Good luck with making your church building a successful home for all!