Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Churches for Closure?

As if anybody needed further proof of how Christian churches have become more like the world, consider an article in today's Wall Street Journal about the recent spike in church foreclosures.

According to the Journal, almost 200 religious facilities have fallen into foreclosure since 2008. For some perspective, banks foreclosed on only six churches from 2006 to 2008. And before that, hardly any. Yet this may be the tip of the iceberg. Financial experts predict that, like many under-water home buyers, even more churches may default within the next few years as creative financing schemes come due for payment.

To say that this situation is an embarrassment is putting it lightly.

Now obviously, 200 church property foreclosures in two years could be viewed as a drop in the bucket, considering America has over 320,000 congregations. But the statistic to note isn't the 200, but the "hardly any" foreclosures that preceded 2006. In that light, 200 in two years represents a stark number, because it means this is a new problem. And, lest you glossed over the accompanying ominous prediction, it may be just the start: how many church foreclosures will come as variable interest rates begin to reset?

Owe Only Gratitude?

Church debt has always been a polarizing issue. Most evangelicals believe a mortgage for their home is permissible and, as long as you can afford to make the monthly payments, logical. After all, in most parts of the country these days, home prices simply can't be paid in one or two installments.

So, this same reasoning has led church leaders to assume that mortgages for church buildings are acceptable. Particularly if you're in a region with stable land values, your congregation is growing, people are working, and you're not being extravagant in your budget.

But the fallacy of these assumptions involves several things. First, right off the bat, you've probably already said to yourself that extravagance is an extraordinarily subjective term. One person's idea of excess might be somebody else's necessity.

Second, our national economy is cyclical enough for anybody with common sense to not rely on a steady gravy train of good-paying jobs. America's brand of capitalism has warped into a profits-at-any-price race to the bottom in terms of the responsibilities - however marginalized many conservatives have interpreted them as being - businesses have to their employees and communities.

Third, congregations wax and wane for any number of reasons. It could be the charisma of the preaching pastor that sparks growth, but if he leaves, lots of people usually follow. It could be the social aura of the congregation, but beauty and fads are only skin deep. It could even be the excitement of a brand-new building, but all buildings age, and these days, with church construction budges pushed to their limits, they seem to age faster than ever before.

Does the Kingdom of God Even Need All These Churches?

I would suspect that if your church is growing primarily because the Bible, and only the Bible, is being preached, then chances are, your church is not one of these 200, and probably doesn't even have a mortgage.

Which brings up another issue. How is it that some congregations can either maintain - which isn't necessarily a bad thing, depending on their location - or flourish, while others are going belly-up because of bad financial decisions?

Here in Arlington, Texas, new "churches" seem to be popping up all over the place. They meet in strip shopping centers, school auditoriums, and repurposed older church buildings. One of them, funded by Joel Osteen, purchased a mothballed corporate headquarters complex several years ago, removing million of dollars in real estate from our the city's property tax rolls.

Not that I'm strictly opposed to church planting. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, has been exceedingly bullish on church planting, and my church in Dallas has planted at least three other thriving congregations in north Texas. But many of North America's new congregations are entrepreneurial, nondenominational, and unaffiliated with a more pragmatic oversight body that can provide a certain level of discernment. It seems this accountability is greater than what some preachers fresh out of seminary or a church split think they need.

Please forgive my cynicism, but I can't help wondering how many of these start-up churches might really profit centers for guys who would otherwise be, well, salesmen? I'm all for experimentation, innovation, and striking out on your own in the business world. But even though Willow Creek and Bill Hybels insist that such economic and corporate models work for churches, a growing chorus of God-centered church ethicists believe they don't.

Deconstructing Church Growth

For proof, just consider the numbers again: 320,000 congregations in a country of 300 million people. That equates to roughly one church for every 940 people in the United States. With that ratio, you'd think America would be, well, better than it is. Yet as a group, America's contingent of the Church Universal, we're not much different from our hedonistic culture. And doesn't it show?

As many of us get divorced as the unchurched. With an average of only 20% of congregants tithing, we hoard the money with which God has blessed almost as much as the outside world. Like a lot of unsaved people, we tend to begrudge poor people a few scraps from our tables. Like other social climbers, we refuse to live on the wrong side of the tracks.

If you think about it, the guys who go out and do all of the church planting wouldn't get very far if people who loved to church-hop didn't create the illusion of demand.

Ever since the start of the Jesus People movement and the seeker-sensitive contemporary movement, a deconstructionist ethos has been at work in the insular world of North American evangelicalism. Maybe it's because we Americans take such pride in individualism, or youth, or maybe because as our society has fractured along moral fault lines, the stability of our conventional congregational structure has become even more tenuous.

During all of those grand old generations we reminisce about, back when everything was better, perhaps the ideological foundation of the church was being ceded more to the world than we realized. Then, as a more casual approach to doing church evolved, it became easier to classify our fellow believers as either stodgy traditionalists or hip contemporaries. This only further destabilized our relevance as saints in a lost world.

Didn't we also get hijacked by well-intentioned but misguided political diversions like the Moral Majority? And haven't we forgotten how to love our neighbors, even as we've wanted to be both in and of the world? Instead of in the world, but not of it?

Maybe that's all bunk. But however it happened, we've found ourselves at a place where the organized church is expected to carry on the work of discipleship, rather than individual believers. We look to our churches for the framework and identity that we think we need to minister to others. We heap upon our pastors the work of evangelism, while we dabble in service projects so the IRS doesn't strip our 501(c)3's of their non-profit benefits.

Intentional Ministry Without Walls or Roof

Not that I'm innocent of this myself. I'm talking to myself as much as anybody. So many of us believers have made the church an idol that it's no wonder we treat it like any other component of our post-industrial capitalistic universe. That's part of what has made church debt such a palatable concept for many congregations. Which is why 200 church loan defaults in two years should serve as a wake-up call for us all.

If we're treating church as another social organization with maybe a higher plane of consciousness, then maybe we need to re-think why we're going. If we think the ministry opportunities of new buildings justify debt, then maybe we don't understand what purpose brick-and-mortar churches serve.

I believe we're living at the end of the churched age anyway. Many of the buildings congregations continue to construct will probably be empty shells within the next couple of decades, as Baby Boomers die off and their offspring continue to rebuff church as a social exercise or hobby.

I'm not wishing this would happen; I won't mind being wrong. I'm simply drawing conclusions from trends. The Holy Spirit will still be working in the hearts of His people, and the wheat will remain. There just won't be as much chaff in the pews.

Will going into debt for the next twenty years justify the possible scenario of paying off the mortgage when the church closes?

Depends on how we rate our interest, doesn't it?

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