Last week I wrote on the theme of “right sizing” and how important it is for our physical, spiritual and emotional development. As best we can as we move through life our external world should match our internal world. The point in that blog was that as we mature in the first half of life we often outgrow our spaces. The reverse is true as well. As we age, our spaces often become more of burden than a blessing. Thus, we spend much of our lives deciding how and when to “right size.”
I promised the story of a church who in the process of discerning a downsizing ended up upsizing their mission many times over. Their story is nothing less than inspiring. The scope of what they accomplished is staggering. But this shouldn’t be seen as a rare exception—just the story of one amazing church who seemed to defy the odds.
The fact of the matter is that we Presbyterians have incredible assets at our disposal. I think we have forgotten that because we are so used to looking at membership numbers and attendance. We have grieved over the losses we have experienced the last five decades forgetting that fewer people has meant more space. That empty Sunday School classroom is both a reason for grief and a reason to celebrate new possibility.
What if we shifted our question from, “How do we get people into our buildings?” to “How can our buildings serve the community around us?”
One church that did that beautifully and faithfully is Arlington.
Arlington Presbyterian Church in Virginia had seen its membership decline from 150 to 65 over a seventeen-year period. They owned a large piece of property on what is considered the Main Street of Arlington. As they struggled with the uncertainty of their own future they asked the question, “For whom are our hearts breaking?
In order to find that answer they set out quizzing waitresses, teachers and store clerks who bought from the food truck in the church parking lot or shopped at the nearby farmer’s market. They met the people in their neighborhood. They heard a consistent response from the largely working-class, immigrant residents, “I work here, but can’t afford to live here anymore.” The congregation prayed and talked. Then they prayed and talked some more.
As they discerned God’s call for them they finally heard, “The call to create affordable housing was bigger than the old building itself—so the walls came down.” Now, in partnership with an affordable housing developer, they are building a 173-unit affordable housing complex on a site that once served 65 church members. The site also will be the home to a culinary job training program.
It had to be a tough decision as the old building carried memories of weddings, memorial services, baptisms, potlucks and Christmas pageants. The decision meant the loss of a congregational ministry and also a renewed commitment to a community mission. Sometimes the decision to downsize opens up great possibilities for upsizing in a renewed way.
Read more of the story here THE ARLINGTON VISION
Questions for your congregation as you consider how you return to your buildings in coming months:
- Is your building being utilized at its full capacity? Does it sit nearly empty six days a week?
- “For whom are your hearts breaking?”
- Who do you need to hear from in your community?
- Who are your neighbors? What are their physical, emotional and spiritual needs?
- What agencies and businesses have a deep investment in your neighborhood or town?
- Besides Christian fellowship and worship what is your mission in the community?
- What help do you need from the presbytery to help you discern your mission to the community?
The Arlington story reminds us that preaching and people are not our only asset. Sometimes our buildings and property are the best way to carry out Christ’s mission in the community.
By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades
Excellent! So much is spent on maintaining a congregation’s edifice complex. If church buildings are necessary, and they were not for the first Christians, it is better to build to serve mission to love both God and neighbor. Having done graduate work on the the topic of housing I focused upon how churches can help create such for those in need. I hope Arlington Presbyterian will be an example to encourage other congregations to consider such an option. Here is another example: https://religionnews.com/2019/11/12/yes-in-gods-backyard-to-use-church-land-for-affordable-housing/
Great article, Gary. I love the term, “YIGBY” I do know there is growing momentum for this. In Multnomah County here in Portland they are changing zoning codes and permit procedures to make it easier for faith communities to step into the mission of providing affordable housing.
What a great story! And what a bold move. Talk about modeling the teachings of Jesus!