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Will Churches That Rent Schools Be Able to Return?

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(and other questions about the church scattered and re-gathered)

by Greg Gibbs

I pastored a church that met in a high school until we built our first facility. I am not alone – it seems like since the 90s, the mutually beneficial relationship of churches needing a place to meet and school districts that could use extra funding has been on the rise. Until now.

More than a handful of churches are faced with a tricky re-entry into congregational life this fall. My friends at Portable Church Industries (PCI is a group that has serviced and supplied thousands of these churches for 25 years) estimate that there are 16,000 portable churches in America today – approximately 75% of them in schools.

There will be a significant question mark over the return of churches into schools across America. Of course, answers about the future are speculative, and every situation is different. But it is not irrational to wonder if school administrators will want to “deep clean” their auditoriums, hallways, bathrooms and classrooms every Sunday afternoon. Nor is it crazy to think that they might consider giving up some rent money to protect from the liability that a student would be infected and the community would blame “the church people.” I am a risk taker by nature, but I know what I would do if I were an administrator – play it safe.

But the team at PCI is not sure they agree that the stiff arm to churches will last too far into 2021 if things keep gradually improving. The revenue that these schools have enjoyed will be difficult to turn away in the long run. The PCI staff is adjusting their ability to serve portable churches in whatever way they can, as movie theaters will increasingly vie for the church rental revenue as well.

No matter how it plays out, I believe I am safe in estimating that there are thousands of portable churches for which this fall may present a challenge. I am also guessing that almost one hundred percent of them have already thought about this if not started thoughtful scenario planning with their landlords.

Geography is a Big Factor

After reviewing this concept with a handful of pastors, I was reminded by my friend Drew (who serves in NYC) that urban churches are facing a considerably different re-entry discussion that the rest of the country. He says, “There is really no re-opening conversation in NYC because of the density and dynamics of the city. I’m wondering if it is the same in other centers like Detroit and Chicago.”

I also have friends and family around the country that were not hit as hard with COVID-19 or simply have a different (and more relaxed) posture toward separation, stay-at-home, re-entry, use of masks, and more. My children in L.A. look at friends in some of these “lesser impacted” parts of the country and wonder if they even chose to participate in the pandemic – from the L.A. perspective, some states were too slow to respond and are too quick to return to normal.

All of this diversity in each circumstance (and the fact there is no such thing as a general or national norm) sparks a handful of questions about the opportunities presented to our churches these days. And, it makes me wonder about a way to have a fruitful conversation about the post-pandemic church. First, a reminder about the church historically, then some questions, and finally some possibilities for the way forward.

Gathered and Scattered

The church has had its ways of being both gathered and scattered. The gathered church is what most people think of – a big room with lots of people elbow to elbow worshipping, hearing teaching, and being together to celebrate their traditions surrounding their commitment to Jesus Christ. The scattered church can be defined as any time we are not together – when we are the disciples of Jesus at work, at play, in our homes and communities. And sometimes the scattered church is a necessity because of oppression (as true today in parts of the world as it has been since the first century). What we will add to church history is “the time we could not meet because of a global pandemic in 2020.”

Learning So Far in 2020

What the last few months have taught us is that the Church has both weakness and strength in the scattered form. And this is important to explore – especially for churches that have the agility to choose not to return to a building. This applies to so many churches that were on their way to “someday” having a building and now may want to stop and reconsider. I can hear our home church brothers and sisters saying, “Welcome to the party – jump in, the water is warm!”

But now, we have had the unexpected opportunity to test what is a middle ground between home church and formal building-centric gatherings of the Church. The truth is, there is a lot of ground in the middle. Let’s look at some of the early learning:

  • When people are in dire need, the Church rises up both corporately and individually – irrespective of a building.
  • There is more intimacy and effectiveness to virtual communication than many believed – the “face on a screen” (if done well) can be a beautifully powerful form of communication.
  • When we are faced with reasons to meet our neighbors and care for the vulnerable that are not part of the regular gathered church, it is a very powerful part of the meeting needs facet of the good news of the gospel.
  • The scattered church also has revealed the difference between nominal and engaged Christians – as one of the primary “coverings” for superficial commitment to Christ is “I go to church on Sunday.”

Questions for Late 2020 and Beyond

I am not mad at nominal Christians – we all should feel the sting of that moniker at times in our lives. The point is that we have this “audit” of the depth of our own commitment of Christ and His Church happening right now. And I am not down on buildings – I believe they will still be useful, helpful and needed as a tool to do a lot of mission and ministry. People will still benefit from gathering with larger groups than 10 or 20 for all of the reasons we know. But the first half of 2020 showed us hidden strengths and weaknesses that we may not have uncovered otherwise. Think of the questions this stirs up:

  • Even if we could return to our leased or rented space, should we?
  • If we used streaming or virtual means of communication as a stop-gap or emergency methodology, should we keep part or all of what we are doing because it has been effective?
  • What should stay “scattered” because it is more effective outside the building than inside?
  • What are the reasons to gather that we have deeply missed because it is the most effective way to grow disciples and deepen our faith?
  • How has boots-on-the-ground serving our neighbors and the vulnerable been a disciple-making opportunity that we may want to continue?

Possibilities for the Way Forward

In some ways the possibilities for the smaller, start up or no-facility-yet church are endless. There may be some larger and more established churches with big buildings to maintain that have a twinge of jealousy right now. The younger or smaller have an options and agility advantage right now. As many have said, every church is a start up now, whether they recognize it or not.

But to not be paralyzed by too many possible options, consider a few ways to look at both return and re-form options:

  1. Return to normal: The school or landlord of the space you were renting is ready to receive the church back, and things can return to what you were doing before, with some alterations because of what you learned this year. For some churches, this may be the best option to re-stabilize the congregation.
  2. Return but to a different location/space: Without the opportunity to return to where you were, churches will consider new spaces or other churches that will become “host church” to a different congregation. This has implications for planning, programming, times, sharing space, etc. that need to be wrestled down. Church buildings experiencing attendance decline, as well as busy mega churches with space to spare, are both viable host options.
  3. Re-form into a virtual/physical hybrid: With the learning of early 2020, some may consider a version of both virtual services with home “watch parties” of multiple people or families combined with a monthly gathering for fellowship and corporate worship. This could be either “for now” with the thought of changing when the dust clears or “for the foreseeable future” because it seems like the best strategy going forward.
  4. Re-form into a missional community or small group based church: For some leaders, the writing is on the wall that the gathered church may not ever look like it has in America again – not just because of the pandemic. With next generations being skeptical of the institution and with the rise of digital effectiveness, this is the opportunity to massively change the way forward.

The fact is, grids like the one above are imperfect and simply conversation guides. You and your church leadership will likely come up with something that is “in between” these four options, a combination of a few of them, or completely outside the box in terms of the post-pandemic version of your ministry.

Many of us pastors will have to dust off our ecclesiology textbooks from seminary and do some deep discernment and prayer about what it really means to gather as a church (in ways that we have not had to do for a long time). My friend David who pastors a Presbyterian church in Ohio reminds me, “The gathering of God’s people is so critically important.” And I agree. But he and I also agree that the way this plays out will be tricky for a while.

I join with the church at large with an optimism and excitement about what this disturbance may cause for the sake of God’s Kingdom in the very near future.