The Changing Politics of Church Property

Church in city skyline

For centuries churches have marked the American landscape. They have stood as icons in the middle of towns, their steeples pointing to a higher reality. But this may no longer be the case. As America continues to urbanize and secularize, and as dying churches shut down and sell off their property, finding a place in the heart of a town or city may be increasingly difficult to do.

I came across an interesting article from Betty Bean discussing this very issue in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bean relays these details:

Former City Council member Carlene Malone says it’s time to reconsider churches’ legal status.

“We’re not looking at churches as perhaps they really are today. We need to realize that this is not the little neighborhood church that’s going to stick around forever. It’s a business model. Land is held like a portfolio, and when the time comes to sell, even though they bought it at residential or agricultural prices, they want to sell it commercial – at commercial prices.”

Malone said that modern mega churches are a far cry from the traditional concept of churches that are active on Sundays and Wednesday nights.

“These are not small uses – not to say they are bad things – but their impact is greater than the old neighborhood churches. The other thing is, what happens when they leave? Do we continue to allow them as use on review in residential neighborhoods because we think they have low impacts, when actually they may well be seeking to expand – and if they don’t expand, they may well move? Or is it time we start looking at them as the business model they actually operate under rather than looking at them as enhancements to neighborhoods?”

This excerpt highlights a number of interesting features in the changing politics of church property…

  • A church is seen more as a “business model” with a portfolio. We will let lie all that stands behind this comment, but the point is churches are seen, at least in Knoxville, as businesses that may need to fend for themselves in the market.
  • A church is no longer considered a low-impact center, but potentially a high-traffic, logistical nuisance to a community (even if the actual activities are good).
  • A church is more aggressive and more transient. It is more aggressive in that it may attempt to acquire more land. And yet, it may be more transient as it potentially shuts down or moves on. This combination is troublesome to many communities.

Of course, we could debate each of these claims, but the point is people like Malone offer a helpful look into the changing perspective on churches and their connection to local real estate. Finding a home for a new church may be more difficult than ever.

Because of these challenges, moving or failing churches will need to think more carefully about how they steward the property they are leaving behind. For example, for the sake of the Kingdom, would it be better to partner with another church than sell off property? Or, for the sake of the Kingdom, could a seller deliberately wait for a buyer that will use the church as a church?

In my opinion, these are questions we need to carefully consider in the coming years of American Christianity. What say you?

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Derek Griz

I am a Christian, a husband, a father, and a pastor (Immanuel Church). I write from those perspectives. Connect with me on Twitter (@derekgriz).