Church Facilities: Holiness and Hospitality

by Jared C. Wilson December 6, 2015

In a Leadership Journal piece (apparently) no longer available online, we find this interesting discussion of the community use of church facilities:

Megachurches are changing. For decades the popular model for church growth was predicated on large facilities hosting many excellent programs to attract the unchurched. But for a number of reasons, not the least being the prevalence of "missional" thinking, some megachurches are trying to adjust their model to be more community-focused. They're asking themselves, "How can we serve our community?" rather than "How can we serve our attenders?"

One example is Granger Community Church in Indiana. Pastor, author, and blogger Tim Stevens has written about Granger's shifting philosophy of ministry, and last week these shifts resulted in a name change for the church's property. Stevens writes:

In our recent revisioning project, we intentionally decided to activate the campus. That is, rather than have a church campus that is primarily focused on weekend services for the congregation-we decided to turn the purpose of the property toward reaching the community… . We realized one of the first things we needed to do was re-brand the entire church property. No longer will it be called Granger Community Church. Instead, we will call it the Granger Commons.

Stevens admits the shift in naming won't immediate result in a shift in perceptions, but he adds, "It may take a few years, but we truly believe that there will be a day in the future when most people in our region will see the Granger Commons as a place of help and hope for the entire community."

What Granger and other large churches are doing with their facilities is laudable, and is actually a throwback to an earlier day when church properties were often the social and cultural hub of a community—not just a place of worship for members one day a week.

But at the same time churches are moving toward welcoming the community into their facilities, legal rulings are restricting how communities can use church buildings.

The 7th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that two schools in Wisconsin violated the Constitution by holding graduation ceremonies at churches. The court said, "the ceremonies were unconstitutional" and "students were exposed to religious messages in the form of a giant cross that hung over the church's sanctuary and religious pamphlets on middle school and high school ministries and hymnals in the pews."

In many communities churches are the only gathering spaces large enough to accommodate events like graduations, and churches are often pleased to partner with school district and civic authorities for such events. But the federal court's ruling may cause communities to think twice before accepting invitations from a church to use their facilities.

The Wisconsin Journal Sentinel reports:

The opinion does not seem to prevent schools from holding graduation in a church… . Rather, it is the circumstances under which the ceremony was held - religious literature on display, an uncovered cross at the front - that the court said made the ceremony unconstitutional.

With churches like Granger seeking to have the community utilize their buildings and property more, it is likely we will encounter more legal scuffles about church and state matters in the years ahead.

Our church once sorted through these issues, as well, part of an ongoing revisiting of our building use policy that dated back long before my tenure. We were discerning about what our building is used for, but we were continually committed to hospitality in relation to areas not at open conflict with the gospel of Jesus. So senior citizens from the community use the hall during the week for their "Bone Builders" exercise meetings, and our local Alcoholics Anonymous meets in our hall on Wednesday nights. We also rented out for wedding receptions, baby and bridal showers, and other private engagements. We host flu shot clinics for the Visiting Nurses Association, etc. But we also closed access to certain groups and events. We realize this could eventually land us in hot water if not legally, at least "buzz"-wise. And yet our concerns run the other way too—we don't want to be chiefly concerned about civic approval, but God's approval.

Here is an excerpt from a message I once sent church trustees and deacons as part of a proposed revision of our building use policy:

Ultimately we want to honor God with the resources we've been given. These premises are God's before they are ours. This building is not the church; the people are the church. And the physical building isn't sacred. But what we communicate with the building is. This means we want to be wisely hospitable to those outside the church in order to be good neighbors and at the same time, in order to be glorifiers of God, we want to be diligently faithful to not even inadvertently promote anything that offends the cause of Christ and his gospel.