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When the “For Sale” Sign Goes Up at Church, What Happens?

When the “For Sale” Sign Goes Up at Church, What Happens?
A troubling scenario is being repeated nationwide at eye-opening levels: After years of solid standing in their respective communities, hundreds of local churches are bow sporting “For Sale” signs.

The decline in membership in some mainline Protestant churches, the consolidation or closure of some Catholic parishes, and shifting demographics overall make some locations and buildings superfluous or undesirable.

It’s been said, for example, that 100 active families are needed to sustain a congregation both in terms of paying a pastor and keeping the physical facility going. When membership drops to 25 or a dozen people—not families, but individuals—sustaining activity can become impossible. Something has to give, and most often it’s the building.

National Public Radio (NPR) has noticed the trend: “More than 6,800 religious buildings have sold in the past five years, and more than 1,400 are currently for sale in the U.S., according to the commercial real estate database CoStar.” It’s worth noting, however, that many of those sold buildings have passed from one church group to another, and more than one of these buyers are congregations that cherish and observe the Bible Sabbath.

Too Big to Sustain?
A building constructed during a period of religious expansion might not be suitable for a time when fewer people are attending, one expert said.

“The buildings we have that were built in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s are not really functional for today’s perspective,” Robert Simons, Cleveland State University professor of urban planning, told NPR. The author of a book on the subject, Retired, Rehabbed, Reborn: The Adaptive Reuse of America’s Derelict Religious Buildings and Schools, Simons added the older structures might have “too many classrooms, [and are] a little bit too big.”

Lisa Macheca, who with her husband Dan purchased a 100-year-old Methodist Church in St. Louis to remake into a bed-and-breakfast, kept much of the exterior of the former church, including the stained-glass windows. It’s helped to retain a sense of connection with those who were once served by the congregation, as former members stop by for a look or to host a wedding in the church where their grandparents tied the knot.

“I thought I was just going to run a bed and breakfast, but that’s really not been the case at all,” she told NPR. “It’s amazing the connections I’ve made with people. I just love hearing their stories.”

A Church’s Real Purpose
The news that hundreds of church buildings are on the market raises a number of questions. Why the decline? What should happen to retired church buildings? And what’s the real purpose of a church, after all?

Much of the decline can be traced not only to changing demographics—the rise of so-called “nones,” who identify with no religious community, and the decrease in the number of families a church could serve—but also to shifting winds of doctrine. The largest mainline Protestant churches, the ones who constructed many of those large sanctuaries 60 or 70 years ago, have abandoned any pretense of Bible-based faith for beliefs that fit the fashion of the hour. If a church is going to be just like the world, why attend and support it?

A church building can be a hub for the community. It should offer programs and services that strengthen families, promote good health, and—most important—introduce non-believers to the gospel. Churches that have regular evangelistic series are often more successful than those that simply open the doors and hope people will come in.

And a church is an organization designed and commissioned to make disciples of those nearby. Jesus was direct: “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” (Matthew 28:19, 20). If a local church isn’t doing this, or isn’t trying, it’s a key to its probable decline.

How does this tie in with the Bible Sabbath? We believe that keeping the Sabbath is one of the “all things” that God wants us to observe. His desire is for sincere, faithful worship that fulfills what the Bible commands.

Keeping the Sabbath is a sign of distinction from a 24/7 world. It separates true faith from a counterfeit or watered-down version. And it sets the agenda for a congregation and for each member: There is a day separate and holy to God, which calls for our active participation—to come together in worship and fellowship.

Just as we believe those local churches that offer regular evangelistic outreaches are more likely to flourish than those who do not, we also believe churches that keep the Bible Sabbath will find a blessing as well.

The Sabbath, of course, is intended to be more than a day around which a church can organize. Our free video presentation “Lord of the Sabbath” will tell you how the Sabbath, in every way, points to Jesus, our Savior and Redeemer.