Churches without the church
Foreclosures have forced some churches to meet in homes or cafes. Now, others are joining in – willingly.
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For growing numbers of churches, out-of-the-building thinking has become a necessity. Evangelical Christian Credit Union in Brea, Calif., services some 1,000 ministry loans and has foreclosed on nine churches since the economic downturn began. It expects to foreclose on two more this year, according to spokesperson Jac La Tour. From inception in 1964 until 2007, the ECCU had never had a foreclosure.Skip to next paragraph
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Strapped or not, few established congregations opt to shift from a traditional model to a building-free church. The change is usually too extreme for a habituated community to pull off, according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass. But he adds that for some new church start-ups, a building-free vision may appeal, in part because it dovetails with a larger trend.
"As society becomes more secular, there's a desire to remove the religious barrier in people's thinking, and that's where you get houses and gymnasiums" functioning as worship spaces, Mr. Johnson says.
For congregations new and old, going building-free has financial advantages. Origin Community Church, for instance, gives 50 percent of its collection to outreach projects. The Village in Las Vegas has slashed overhead expenses from 70 percent of its budget to just 30 percent, leaving the savings for such outreach projects as a refugee center renovation in Phoenix and orphanage construction in Mexico.
Boosters of the building-free model also tout the spiritual benefits. At The Well, groups embrace spontaneity, such as when worshipers cut prayers short one day to help a neighbor paint his fence.
"We're concerned not just with what the early Christians taught but also what they practiced," says Rick Thompson, an attendee of a Cambridge, Mass., house church and adviser to other house churches in New England.
Going building-free has drawbacks, too. Eastburn of The Well acknowledges his congregation can't offer as much youth programming as a congregation with a facility of its own. Diamond, the Las Vegas pastor, says his church lost about half its 400 regular attendees when it bade goodbye to its rented facility.
Still, the prospect of doing church without real estate has excited at least one megachurch pastor.
"The Sunday morning setup where people go to church, listen to a speaker, sing some songs together ... is passive for the most part," said Greg Boyd in an interview last year. The pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Maplewood, Minn., which has 3,000 weekly attendees, added: "The kingdom is about participation and about sacrifice.... We may even get rid of the building at some point because it could get in the way."