Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A church closes its doors

This photo, taken last Sunday morning at 11:00 am, is the Toledo Christian Fellowship building, a church fellowship I helped to lead for the last 20 years or so. Empty church building. Empty parking lot. Easter Sunday. Many are predicting that this will become an increasingly common sight over the next few decades. Tragic loss? or is this good news in disguise?

I visited with a friend at a track meet last week. Her opinion on the question left little doubt. She had grown up attending the “Church on the Hill” before it became Toledo Christian Fellowship (TCF). When she asked how things were going at the church, I explained that the church building was no longer being used. “What?” she asked, evidently troubled. “Why? what happened?” I explained how a crisis over my views on evolution had led to the demise of the fellowship as it had existed.

[About a year ago, I briefly described this crisis. You can read that recounting

By now, those TCF families who found my views intolerable have settled into other local churches. We're still friends. The remaining TCF families continue to fellowship together informally, but we now meet in homes.

With the exception of a couple of finance meetings, and a few informal worship times, TCF has not met formally in the building for 6 months or more. The property is currently for sale. We hope to use the proceeds of the sale to finance missions projects around the world, projects which the fellowship has historically supported. The proceeds might fund a permanent endowment for missions, or we may place the funds directly into the hands of friends in places like Liberia, southeast Africa, and Cambodia.

When I explained to my friend the current state of affairs at T.C.F., it made little difference to her that most of TCF continues to fellowship, and frequently gathers in homes. She was stunned to learn that the property was for sale! It made little difference to her when I explained that the sale proceeds would continue the mission of the Kingdom of God around the world. For her, the closing-down of a church building, the very church building which for her held so many childhood memories, was unthinkable, a horrible step in the wrong direction.

This set me to wondering how the readers of this blog might view “closing the doors” of a conventional church building in America.

I have read that there are
over 450,000 churches in the United States. If 400,000 of these churches own buildings, and if those buildings average $500,000 in value (both conservative estimates, I think) we can calculate the dollar value tied up in the churches in America at $200 billion. The actual amount is likely higher than that, probably much higher! When we add to this capital fund lock up the cash flow required to maintain those churches (the tithes and offerings of American Christians), the American church invests heavily in its own properties. And frankly, little is left over for the support of Christian missions in less fortunate corners of the world. A recent survey in Christianity Today indicated that churches give approximately 2% of their budgets to missions in foreign lands. What percentage do those same churches spend on mortgages, and upkeep and maintenance of their buildings?

I wonder how those figures compare to the fast growing church in China, now estimated to be larger than the church in the United States.

What about it, readers? Is it a lamentable shame that the United States will have one less church building? Is it a bad thing that the property will likely be added to the tax rolls to the benefit of our local taxing districts? Is it a misfortunate turn of events that several hundred thousand dollars of church capital may soon be reallocated to benefit churches in the third-world?

What if 200,000 church buildings in America were liquidated tomorrow? Would this negatively impact the health of Christianity in America? or might it be a good thing? What if the proceeds were scattered around the world to various mission projects? Anyone care to speculate on the potential impact of $100 billion or more into endowments for and direct aid to the third-world church?

Your comments are welcome!


Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
When the local church (ie. Local group of followers of Christ) becomes synonymous with “church building”, we have a major problem. So there are probably many cases where (forcibly?) closing a church building may be a good thing if it allows the local church to start being church again. As well, there are times where the benefits of a church building are greatly outweighed by the costs, and a good local church can be a better local church by getting rid of the building (sounds like that is your case). But, I’m sure that in many situations (majority?) having an actual building will be beneficial for the local kingdom work **if** it is viewed as a tool for that kingdom work. So, would closing down almost half the church buildings in America be a negative impact or a positive impact on the church? Might a little of both.

Cliff Martin said...

Hi Steve,

Good to hear from you!

No doubt that a building can be beneficial. Many church buildings are put to good use and serve vital functions in their communities. I suppose I am here challenging what seems to be our default way of thinking ... that a "for sale" sign on a church building is necessarily a bad thing.

Have you looked at church demographics and projections for the next 20 to 40 years? Barring a major (really major!) revival in America, we will not be needing 450,000 church buildings over the next few decades. (I assume the same situation exists in Canada.) Will churches opt to hold out to the bitter end, with a view that selling out is, well, selling out? Or will churches strategically and intentionally recommit financial resources where they are presently needed to sustain the growing church in the third-world?

The Martins said...

Demographics aside, a bigger hit would be the possible end of Non-profit status for the church. Some are saying that we may see that happen in the next stages of the post-christian era... contemplate that for a while!

As far as a building less church, I hopeful that a new expression of Christ's kingdom can emerge in this generation. I think that we may be stronger as a church with fewer buildings, but I am also see that there are many cases where the church is stronger when there is a gathering place for a larger community.

Maybe what is week in the Western church is not where we meet but why?

Tim Martin

Isaac Gouy said...

cliff > Anyone care to speculate on the potential impact of $100 billion or more into endowments for and direct aid to the third-world church?

The third-world church or the third-world?

$10 can provide 400 children with enough clean drinking water for one day.

What would Jesus do?

Cliff Martin said...


Are you saying that the end of 503(c)3 tax exemptions would be a good thing?

Imagine a building-less "church in Portland" renting the Rose Garden once a month for multiple service blow-out worship!


Good point. The third-world church or the third-world? you ask. I would answer, both. But the reason that I favor funding the third world church is that they are there! They might well have a clearer perspective on what Jesus would do, and how he would do it in their own lands than our Western minds.

Who better to administrate benevolent funds in, say, Cambodia? A Western relief agency? Or boots-on-the-ground Cambodian disciples of Jesus? I'll go with the Cambodians!

Isaac Gouy said...

cliff > But the reason that I favor funding the third world church is that they are there!

"... one billion people do not have access to safe water, and 2.6 billion people live without proper sanitation."

I seem to remember something about Samaritans.

Cliff Martin said...

Yes, the needs are unlimited.

The Martins said...

I do not necessarily favor the end of the 501c3 status for the church, however I have heard several speculate on that possibility, and having contemplated the idea for a while, I can't help wondering how that would effect the issue you have brought up here. I can only speculate as to how the end of non-profit status would drastically reduce giving nation wide, which would in turn exacerbate the demographic issue you raise.

Tom said...

While there is a decline in these kinds of churches, are mega-churches on the rise? That would speak volumes about worshipping trends.

While a church is really its people, the group may have a hard time recruiting and maintaining its followers without a base.

Love's Door said...

Well Cliff, as you know, I am in a unique position to comment on this. I was a vital part of this church at one time - leading the charge for 7 years. And now I am in the third world - hoping to access some of those funds! So is that a conflict of interest, or what?

As a member of the church, I think about the people. None of the people going there thought of church as a building - you and I taught them that from long past. To close the building is not significant. It was the loss of trust that broke the fellowship that emptied the building that caused the for sale sign. The first in that chain is tragic - the last is simply a manifestation of that. The fellowship is the pearl - whether it meets in homes or coffee shops or "church buildings".

One Sunday evening years ago, I visited a neighboring church during Christmas time , and saw all the families with kids coming from far and wide for the holiday, and coming to their home church - the one they grew up in and still knew and loved all the core people. They brought their new children and everyone ooo'ed and ahhed over them. They sang the same old specials they had every Christmas for years. I guess I am not a typical "pastor", because for the first time it dawned on me that the church is something that is to be a pillar in the community for generations. Not the building - but the fellowship of people. It is like family - always there.

I am now proudly planting "simple churches" - where we have no buildings other than the homes and shops where the people are. But one thing I miss is a day that is set aside to worship, and a people who will continue together for a long period of time, committed to one another, building life together. I am still looking for my ideal church I guess.

Dan Bumstead

Rich G. said...


Just came back from lunch w/ Scott & Terri, and got more insight into what you wrote. I threw out a idea to have some form of open, semi-regular meeting specifically for non-church Christians, more along the lines of an open forum for discussion than a formal service. I'd like to visit yours just to get a feel for what you are doing.

Rich G. said...


BTW, if you are looking for a project to help the indigenous church in SE Africa - I have been to Mocambique twice and have some ideas...

Cliff Martin said...


While a church is really its people, the group may have a hard time recruiting and maintaining its followers without a base.Maybe. But there are plenty of examples both in America and abroad of church groups that survive and thrive without buildings. And there are other ways of utilizing buildings. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, build nice small meeting halls which may be home to 3 or 4 or more “congregations” who meet at various times during the week.


I am still looking for my ideal church I guess.

Yeah, me too. Though I must confess that, for me, a building has never been a part of that ideal. But I share your longing for stability, life-long relationships. Trouble is, most of my closest friends now live thousands of miles away, including my best friend in South Africa!


You are welcome to visit our Sunday Breakfast. We’d love to have you. You could spend the night Saturday if 8:30 is too early for starting out in Tillamook. We frequently have overnight guests, and we could reserve a guest room for you!

BTW, if you are looking for a project to help the indigenous church in SE Africa - I have been to Mozambique twice and have some ideas...Of course, these kinds of decisions would be made by the entire TCF finance committee. But the reason I mentioned SE Africa is because that is where our good friends Dan and Regina (see three comments above) are working.

Psiloiordinary said...

Hi Cliff,

Think about the AIMS Institute as set up b Neil Turok.

- - -

I watched the BBC program Did Darwin Kill God? - they showed just how silly the vast majoirty of all christians view YEC and the theology that goes with it.

It makes me wonder if most YEC's have any idea that their belief is an invention of the 20th Century and a tiny majority of christianity?


A ig part of me wants to say to you; " Never mnd son, play with the nice kids now, those other don't deserve your friendship."

But that would be patronising to you and you don't deserve that.

I hope the lifestyle comes together and you are yours live good happy lives.

All the best,


Cliff Martin said...


Thank you for your thoughts.

~ Cliff

Cliff Martin said...


It makes me wonder if most YEC's have any idea that their belief is an invention of the 20th Century and a tiny majority of christianity?

I'm sure you must have meant "tiny minority". I make this correction not for your sake, but for the sake of my YEC friends (assuming any of them still read this blog).