The following is not intended as a guide for churches that are already engaged in building redevelopment projects. It is meant instead as a tool to aid congregations who may be in the early stages of discernment and to help spark the imagination of churches who may not have considered redevelopment as a matter of mission and ministry. Redevelopment is a matter of mission and ministry!
What is Redevelopment?
There are many ways the built form of a church can be modified. Somewhere between renovation and conversion lies redevelopment. Renovation (like upgrading a worship space or creating an accessible entrance) usually does not involve a fundamental change of use or require significant investment from outside of the congregation or denomination. A conversion, on the other hand, implies a complete change of ownership and use. It is not uncommon for disestablished churches in urban centres to be converted into condos or pubs. Clearly, this is not the kind of religious conversion the church is meant to be about. Redevelopment, then, refers to a modification of the built form of the church which entails a partial change of use, while not ceasing to function as a place of worship, mission and ministry. Redevelopment will almost inevitably involve new partnerships with non-church operators, developers, and investors.
This will be a new paradigm for many within the church. But we are in a new era. The National Trust for Canada estimates that 9,000 church buildings will be converted over the next decade. This number is significant, but it shouldn’t be a surprise given the rapid decline in religious affiliation in Canada since the 1950s. Indeed, the fastest growing “religious” demographic in the country consists of those who identify as having “No Religion.” The so-called ‘nones’ made up 4% of the Canadian population in 1971 and jumped to nearly 25% in 2011. We might say that supply is outstripping demand when it comes to single-use church buildings. And there is little reason to assume this trend will change.
Lower attendance and decreased revenues in churches are compounded by increased expenses from deferred maintenance and aging infrastructures. These are sobering realities that should awaken us to a problem. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to reimagine ministry by reimaging what we do with our church buildings.
What if we thought of church buildings as key assets in a full and integrated vision of contextual ministry? What if we considered not just the financial, but also the ecological, social, and spiritual potential of our buildings?
How do churches redevelop?
By letting vision, not crisis, drive the process
Root the process in prayer and reflection on scripture. The church has an older, deeper, and more demanding call upon it than private landowners. Dig deep into the scriptures and the tradition to find these sources. Don’t just ask, but listen in your prayers to what the Spirit is calling you to.
Get to know your building. Understand the built form of your church and its role in your ministry and in your community. Is it helping you to accomplish your ministry goals (build on that!) is it hindering your ministry goals (problem solve from there!).
Consult. Ensure the process engages the full range of stakeholders from beginning to end. With such high-level and sometimes sensitive issues, experts and visionaries can often move quickly and leave important stakeholders behind.
By ruling out the non-starters
Engage the relevant stakeholders within the church: clergy, staff, lay leaders, opinion shapers. Become aware of the structures and policies that govern church properties. In particular, consult with your denominational leaders and relevant staff.
Learn about the redevelopment process. Connect with churches that have redeveloped their properties. Reach out to one of the many organizations engaging churches in this process. Just be “wise as serpents” (Matt 10:16) in the process. Do not commit to binding partnerships hastily!
Consult with the community. Local community partners may have a stake in your redevelopment project that you are not aware of. They may become your best ally in the process. But you also want to be aware of any potential NIMBYism. Further, if the church’s ministry is to the community, then the community is one of the best places to begin discerning a redevelopment project. You will also want to have your city counsellor on side as soon as possible.
By focusing on impact
Financial: Long-term sustainable ministry is the goal here. For that you need capital to begin the process and revenue to keep it going. Be prepared to talk numbers!
Spiritual: If church redevelopment is about diversifying the uses of church buildings while maintaining its use as a place of worship, mission and ministry, then any redevelopment will need to enable and enhance the capacity for Christian communities to worship, serve, and disciple.
Social: If your congregation is already having an impact in the neighbourhood, redevelopment can help to encourage that work. But this is also an opportunity to increase impact by adapting the built form to current needs and opportunities in the community.
Ecological: “The most environmentally sustainable building there is is the building we have,” an architect once told me. We can’t all build LEED certified churches. So think in terms of decreasing the carbon footprint of the buildings we have and increasing their resilience.
This is a unique and challenging moment for the church. In order not to be undone by the immensity of the challenge, we need to have a clear view of the situation and the courage to act. When it comes to the built form of the church it must be admitted: most of our buildings were constructed for a church that no longer exists. We need a new form of church: a new built-form for the church that does exist. The process, and its results, will look different for each congregation. But we need to begin re-thinking, re-imagining, and in many cases re-building.