Many church buildings offer significant untapped potential—sitting largely empty for multiple hours each week. In response, some church leaders are making creative use of that space by sharing it with other groups in the community.
In many cases, they’re finding the results richer than expected. Consider these suggestions if your church is contemplating something similar:
1. Ask good questions.
For Pastor Scott Harris, everything started with a simple question: “Are we, as a church, being faithful stewards of the people, places and things God has given us?”
Scott pastors Ebenezer EFC in Milwaukee, Wis. “For me,” he says, “it’s a sin issue. We only use the building about 16 hours a week. That’s not being good stewards.”
Pastor Jeremy Cook asked his congregation to wrestle with a somewhat different question: “If Concord Bible Church ceased to exist in our community, who would miss it?”
Dissatisfied with their own answers, this EFCA congregation in Concord, Calif., started looking for other ways to be relevant.
If your church is considering sharing space with the community, start with lots of discussion. If you choose to proceed, one early question needs to be, “Who in our church should be included in setting guidelines?” (see point No. 4 below). Then, consider these additional questions with each request:
- Does this fit—even enhance—our philosophy of evangelism?
- Will this activity interfere with (or aid) our own church’s activities?
- Do its values/purpose affirm or contradict the values/purpose of our church, or are they neutral?
Who better to ask these questions of than God, the one who cares most about those in your community? In fact, engage your whole congregation in prayer. Ask for Spirit-led appointments with other community leaders that might lead to strong partnerships.
“Our questions,” Jeremy Cook says, “brought about a season of prayer that begged the Lord to make us relevant in our community.” After that season of prayer, the church watched God very specifically place opportunities at its door.
When Ebenezer EFC was offered the opportunity to partner with a Hispanic church plant with slightly different theology and practices, they evaluated, interviewed the church planter and then spent a month in prayer before making a decision. “We are now six months into our partnership,” Scott says, “and letting God lead has proven to be a blessings to both churches.”
3. Take the initiative.
You can’t simply wait for opportunities to fall into your lap. “I usually try to involve myself in community meetings or activities,” Scott says, “and have an antenna up for ways the church can help.”
Members of another Wisconsin church began looking for community-involvement opportunities as soon as they constructed their building, 10 years ago. Randy Olson serves as director of operations and community outreach at Door Creek Church in Madison. Door Creek happened to be the first building in the area, and as neighborhoods sprung up, Door Creek invited the neighborhood organizations to hold meetings in the church at no charge. They also invite the city leadership to use the space for its meetings.
Door Creek is a good neighbor in other ways too. Each year, Randy sends out a letter to people whose homes adjoin the 32-acre church property, letting them know of events that will be taking place. “We also give them a little space on our land,” Randy says. “Almost half have taken us up on that and planted a garden or trees.”
4. Formulate guidelines and stick to them.
“Whatever parameters you set, be consistent,” Randy warns. “If you start varying from the rules you establish, then you have to justify that to everyone, and that’s difficult.”
While the guidelines each church sets will be different, consider these as a starting point:
- Church programs and activities have priority over those of outside organizations, unless a prior agreement has been made.
- Only nonprofits and not-for-profit businesses may use the church building.
- No campaigning or one-sided political events are permitted.
- If the space is needed for more than a one-time event, the board must give approval.
- If an event is going to require significant custodial time, the church may charge a fee.
- Certain rooms [and here you’ll clarify] are off-limits.
- A staff member must always be present.
- A planning meeting is required before each event, to communicate church policies and to understand the community group’s needs.
5. Create partnerships.
Door Creek has had a relationship with the Madison police force for more than seven years. All new trainees go through a week-long training in their church space. This has opened a door for more connections between Door Creek and the city of Madison.
“The senior pastor and I met last week with the mayor,” Randy shares. “We had a good hour-long discussion about how our church can be a blessing to the city. It’s a win-win relationship when you’ve got a good working relationship with the city and the neighborhoods.”
Pastor Dave Thomas agrees. “We believe our gracious partnerships have softened negotiations with others,” he says about Southern Lakes EFC in Elkhorn, Wis., where he serves as pastor of adult ministries. “We rent public-school facilities so that our AWANA clubs can be held in a location that is more comfortable for unchurched kids. The school district is cooperative because we have earned a reputation of respect and kindness.”
Concord Bible EFC has developed a partnership with its area branch of the American Youth Soccer Organization. The church hosts AYSO meetings and some practices, and at the annual banquet, the church body volunteered to do all of the food service, prep and clean-up.
AYSO, out of gratitude, gave the church a $1,700 donation and an opportunity to address the group. When Jeremy Cook shared that this donation would enable church members to build a home in Mexico on their upcoming mission trip, he received a round of applause.
Jeremy can point to many benefits from the AYSO partnership. “We have three families coming to church on a regular basis. We are starting up a summer day-camp program for families in our community, and AYSO is going to partner with us on promotion and doing clinics. AYSO also wants to help us with some construction and a/c needs within the building that they meet in, for no cost.”
For all of these churches, seeing God work in unexpected and unconventional ways is the most rewarding part of the experience. “We live in a society that believes nothing is free,” Dave Thomas says, “and we have found that serving our community—in ways that they don’t earn or pay for—lays a foundation to communicate that we also can obtain salvation that is invaluable but is offered freely.”