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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Ministry and Buildings

Saturday, December 16, 2006

NPH read with great interest this story in the Christian Science Monitor about a Presbyterian church in Queens, New York, that has decided to tear down its building and replace it with affordable apartments for senior citizens. The church has steadily declined in membership for several years, and its existence has increasingly come to be defined in terms of simply "staying alive" and "keeping the doors open." And in that beautiful old building, the doors cost a lot to keep open. It was becoming clearer and clearer that, absent some dramatice redevelopment stategy, the church would soon be forced to close its doors and sell its building.

What NPH finds remarkable about this story is that the redevelopment strategy that this church and its pastor have hit upon is directed entirely towards its community; it has nothing to do with the "survival" of the church and everything to do with the well-being of the people to whom the church is called to share the Good News. It's a paradigm shift in the classic sense, and one that carries with it a great deal of sacrifice and loss (certain members have left). But NPH thinks that this is precisely what the church is called to be and do.

NPH's church just approved its budget for 2007. In it, close to 15 % of total operating costs are going to building maintanance. Our congregation has a solvent preschool and daycare that serves the community and pays rent to the church for its space, so those costs are not as daunting as they are for many churches. But the issue still remains: church building often become ends in themselves, rather than serving the end of the church's mission. How long can churches with expensive buildings justify pouring larger and larger percents of their operating budgets into building costs if they can't say how the building serves God's mission to the world?

In the changing landscape of North America, it's more and more going to be the case that established, prominent community churches are going to have to ask this question. It falls to those called to leadership in those churches to ask it and to suggest some tough answers. The pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Astoria in Queens has done that, and NPH gawks in admiration.


posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 8:55 AM


When I read about that church's move I, too, was gawking. I wondered how long it took for the church to move from realizing that something needed to change to birthing the idea to actually voting to enact it. What was the pastoral leadership doing through this process?

It's not lost on me that Dorothy Day (founder of the Catholic Worker movement) loved her big, extravegant church buildings, and that they in no way impeded her work. But where is the intersect between Day and Astoria?

I have yet to see it, but I'd love to try to live into it.

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