Baptists Struggle to Sell or Share Church Buildings

Whether in the city or in the country, above, churches become sacred through baptisms, funerals and other rituals. (Creative Commons photo by Kevin Dooley)
Whether in the city or in the country, above, churches become sacred through baptisms, funerals and other rituals. (Creative Commons photo by Kevin Dooley)

Experts say Catholics and Anglicans aren’t the only ones who become attached to their church buildings, and that Baptists are often the most reluctant to let go of buildings or allow others in — even when membership and revenues plummet.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston went to court this week to force a group of parishioners out of the church it is trying to close, along with many others.

National Public Radio reported that 100 members of St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church have been holding a vigil in the parish slated for closing to help the archdiocese, citing shortages in priests and laypeople, to save money.

But devoted Catholics in the Northeast aren’t the only ones desperate to hang on to their churches. Many Protestants, regardless of geography, can be just as determined stay in buildings regardless of size, dwindling attendance or tight finances.

And that goes for Baptists, too, said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

‘Where your grandma was resting’

“Baptists have consistently been attached to their buildings,” Leonard said.

This is true in part because the earliest Baptist church buildings were in rural locations and small towns. Almost always they had cemeteries.

“You could look out the window and see where your grandma was resting,” Leonard said.

“So the building carried with it the ethos of ‘we built this with our own hands, and certainly with our own money, and our previous generations are next door,’” he said.

Among Primitive and Old Regular Baptists in Appalachia, Leonard added, clapboard and wood-frame churches, located deep in the woods, were considered sacred because they were the sight of foot washings, rites of passage and the preaching of the gospel.

“It was about multiple evidences of home,” he said. “It really was about being home.”

‘Where they create memory’

But in modern, urban contexts, those who work with churches say that loyalty to a building or property can blind congregations to creative ways to move forward, whether it’s selling or sharing sacred space.

“They really do believe this is the place where they best encounter God,” said George Bullard, a church strategy consultant with, and president of, the Columbia Partnership in South Carolina.

And no wonder. Christians who have worshiped in the same church all or most of their lives were maybe baptized and married in that place. They may have seen their children and grandchildren baptized and married there. And in some cases, loved ones’ funerals were held in those sanctuaries.

It’s one of the fundamental ways sacred space is created, Bullard said.

“That place becomes more important to them because it’s where they create memory,” he said. “Therefore, their buildings may be in need of major renovation, and they can’t pay for it, but they still want to retain it.”

That’s become an increasingly common dilemma during the past 30 years or so, and is picking up as church memberships age and fewer young families join.

Selling is only one of the options many congregations consider. Another is allowing another congregation to worship in the building, although many are reluctant to explore this option.

Why? “Because they won’t love it the way we do,” Bullard said, adding that the number of churches allowing other groups in is far outnumbered by those who refuse to try it.

“So often we are unwilling to do things that we believe break the sacred nature of our buildings,” he said.

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SOURCE: Baptist News Global
Jeff Brumley

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