In 2020, church buildings went mostly unused. COVID restrictions canceled or severely limited in-person worship services. Other church events and activities suffered the same fate. While some churches successfully transitioned to life online, most struggled without the ability to meet in person and experienced a corresponding decline in giving. Property went from being a productive ministry asset to a ministry choking cost.
Unfortunately, the problem of unused church property is not unique to 2020. Nor will it simply go away if we manage to overcome COVID. In 2018, The Atlantic published an article entitled “America’s Epidemic of Empty Churches.”[i] The article reported that 6,000 to 10,000 churches die each year, leaving thousands of vacant properties in their wake. This number has almost certainly risen since 2018 as a result of the ongoing collapse of several mainline denominations and the pandemic of 2020.
Even healthy churches struggle to put their properties to use. So much is changing about what Americans value, what they are willing to give towards, and how they prefer to worship. Church members are more interested in giving when they can see that their dollars are making an impact and not just being used to keep the lights and heat on in a mostly unused space.
While the trend in underused church properties is tragic in many respects, it is nevertheless a great opportunity for churches that are willing and able to re-envision how their property can be used to accomplish their religious missions. Property—be it a sanctuary space, a home, a parking lot, or even vacant land—is an asset with tremendous potential. This potential can be realized if stewarded and used in the right way. But realizing the potential of church property often requires creative and expansive thinking. Churches that want to expand their ministry and be good stewards of their property must find new and better ways to use it. Perhaps there are opportunities to partner with other ministries who need space. Perhaps there are needs in the community that can be met with the space or building the Church has available. Perhaps there are different ways to do “church.”
At Dalton & Tomich, we help churches and ministries all across the country use their properties in new and better ways by helping them overcome the legal hurdles and restrictions which may stand in their way. Land and religious liberty are not ends in themselves but rather tools we have to better serve God and our neighbors.
[i] The Atlantic, November 25, 2018, Jonathan Merritt: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/what-should-america-do-its-empty-church-buildings/576592/