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Reversing the Trend of Declining Attendance

Christian congregations are losing church members. How can life be restored again for church buildings to be the vibrant center of their communities?

According to Simon G. Brauer in his 2017 peer-reviewed paper written for the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, congregations hit their peak of 414,000 in 2006 and by 2012 the number shrank to 384,000. According Thom Rainer, in his 2018 article Hope for Dying Churches, “Between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year.” There is no solid statistical evidence of this many closings.

But whether the numbers are real or fake, when these great sacred landmarks are dark and lifeless, the surrounding community experiences loss. How can life be restored into these empty shells to again be the vibrant center to its community? I believe the answer is to breathe-in new life by serving the needs of our neighbors. Over the years, churches have offered their facilities to outside groups such as AA, NA, warming shelters and lunch programs. But can we add to these types of programs and help support a wider circle of needs? Church buildings and the property they occupy, with rare exception, are expensive underutilized assets. Their weekly usage is low and they require significant financial commitment for maintenance and upkeep.

As a result, a church facility can either be a financial anchor or a sail that will help position the overall ministry to add value in their local communities. Communities have a variety of needs; no two are identical. So how do church leaders determine what those needs are?

Do they align with the churches calling/mission? What are the capabilities of their assets? Assets that not only include the building but the gifts of knowledge, skills and heart to tell stories and shed light on each community. When we look through economic lenses, what is the cost-benefit model to the community and to the church? This last question too often halts the discussion. Go/No-Go decisions are made based upon assumptions without evidence or data to answer with certainty.

A recent research project provides new data that affirms and monetizes tangible economic elements and civic value of America’s sacred places. The findings may surprise you, they did me. “The Economic Halo Effect of Historic Sacred Places” was conducted under the direction of Dr. Ram Cnaan, Professor and Director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania in conjunction with Partners for Sacred Places. Photo by John Tagle Architects Partners is a Philadelphia based non-sectarian, nonprofit organization focused on building the capacity of congregations to better serve their communities as anchor institutions, nurturing transformation and shaping vibrant creative communities. After an in-depth analysis of 90 congregations in Philadelphia, Chicago and Fort Worth the Report concluded that “The size and complexity of the economic impact of sacred places provides powerful new evidence that America’s sacred places have enormous community value . . .”

The Report may challenge some of the long held ideas as to what activities are appropriate to have in a church. But I also believe the Report will spur new ideas and opportunities to consider whether you’re a pastor, a church leader, or part of a government, philanthropic organization or non-profit organization. The press release about the Report shares some of the highlights. If you want to take a deeper dive into the findings, how the Report was conducted or what’s next let me know. I can email or send you a paper copy.

If after reading the materials you experience a “Kairos Moment” or have questions please contact Bob Jaeger, President of Partners at 215-567-3234, ext. 12.nt” or have questions please contact Bob Jaeger, President of Partners at 215-567-3234, ext. 12.

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