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Churches Turn to Business for Survival

Churches Turn to Business for Survival

Some churches in Dallas and New York City—two of the most expensive American urban areas—have turned to commercial strategies to keep their doors open.

In Dallas, the White Rock United Methodist Church offers worship on Sundays and rents out the basement to businesses during the week. An African refugee group makes bags and other handicrafts in the space, for example.

Close to Death

“We were spending way too much money to keep the doors open and the lights on and the staff paid and Sunday morning going, and so it was clearly a move out of desperation,” senior pastor Michael Boone told a reporter. “We were close to death.”

One success is in-house yoga classes, according to Leila James, who’s been a member at White Rock for 44 years. “I attended the yoga class and I remember one day we got the giggles because we were just enjoying it so much and we thought, ‘Well, this is the way church should be. We should be able to have other aspects of our lives here,’” James said.

In the New York City neighborhood of Harlem, rising demand for real estate has led some churches to sell properties, while retaining land rights, to developers. The developers build condominium apartments, and the churches get rent for the land, and sometimes new or refurbished sanctuaries.

The Church of the Master, a Presbyterian congregation, “tore down its collapsing 1893 Victorian home, renovated an adjoining building and leased the ground under the former church to a developer, who built apartments,” according to Crain’s New York, a business newspaper. The group kept the land rights, which means the developer pays rent, keeping the congregation’s programs alive.

“The developers were not necessarily looking out for our interest, but we had people on our side who were,” church elder Rory Scott told the publication.

In other cities, including Salt Lake City, churches are also operating “co-working spaces” and other economic “incubators” to both serve the public and raise funds for operations. The reasoning is simple, it seems: A building that’s mostly empty five or six days of the week can be used for other purposes. So long as the businesses aren’t directly opposed to a congregation’s values (no pot dispensaries, please), it’s cast as a win-win for all concerned.

Should a Church Be a Business Incubator?

Or is it? Are churches supposed to be workday business hubs? Or are they designed to be soul-saving stations where those weary of the world’s deceptions can find refuge and restoration?

Well, let’s take a look at the Bible, and what Jesus told His followers to do. Perhaps we can find some guidance there.

In Matthew 28:19-20, we read these words, among the last spoken by Jesus before His ascension: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (NKJV).

There’s nothing there about renting out space for yoga classes or other non-Christian purposes, however useful those might be in a given community. Instead, believers are commissioned to bring others to faith in Jesus, to be taught to follow all the commandments of God. But even if renting out space to non-Christian businesses is acceptable, it’s important for churches to ensure that God’s house of worship doesn’t turn into a “den of thieves” (Luke 19:46).

One of the world’s best-loved Christian authors had this to say about the church’s purpose: “The church is God's appointed agency for the salvation of men. It was organized for service, and its mission is to carry the gospel to the world. From the beginning, it has been God's plan that through His church shall be reflected to the world His fullness and His sufficiency. The members of the church, those whom He has called out of darkness into His marvelous light, are to show forth His glory” (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 9).

And in a message titled “What Is the Gospel?” Pastor Doug Batchelor, president of Amazing Facts, said, “The purpose of the church is to know and share the gospel. We are all sinners in desperate need of saving grace. God provides a solution. Jesus came to offer everlasting life. Christ exchanged places with us and died for us that we might live forever.”

Again, it’s not necessarily a bad idea for a congregation to get involved in economic development in their community, or even overseas. But the church building—if a congregation is fortunate enough to have one—should be the center of faith-building activities. Those will lead to an ultimate “return on investment” far greater than any cash dividend!