When St. Francis de Sales Church in Troy, New York, closed in 2009, it was converted into a fraternity house for the Phi Sigma Kappa chapter at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. A communal symbol that once served as a beacon of hope and welcome now seems like little more than an emblem of American youthful superficiality. Imagine the emotional impact of driving past the place of your mother’s baptism only to see frat boys stumbling down the front steps.
Calling it quits isn’t the only option for dwindling congregations in possession of expansive, expensive buildings. Some are moving upstream of the crisis, opting to repurpose their buildings before they go under.
Larry Duggins left a successful career in investment banking a decade ago to attend seminary at Southern Methodist University. There he met a professor of evangelism named Elaine Heath with whom he brainstormed ways to help dying churches who maintain a will to live. The pair eventually founded the Missional Wisdom Foundation, a 501c(3) that functions as a kind of think tank for “alternative forms of Christian community that makes sense for traditional churches that may be declining.”
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“Years ago, the neighborhood church was the place many in America got together and, along with local schools, was where they got to know their neighbors,” Duggins told me. “But this model is no longer relevant for many people, so churches have to think creatively about how to help people encounter others and God in their everyday lives.”
To test their idea, Duggins and Heath approached the pastor of White Rock United Methodist Church in Dallas about collaborating. Half a century ago, it was a massive congregation with robust weekly programming, a strong reputation in the community, and a 60,000-square-foot building. But the neighborhood’s demographics shifted in recent years, and church membership waned. Its combination of sprawling space and shrinking attendance made White Rock the perfect guinea pig for Duggins and Heath’s experiments.
Missional Wisdom moved into the bottom 15,000 square feet of White Rock’s building and got to work. It converted the fellowship hall into a co-working space and transformed Sunday school rooms into a workshop for local artisans, including a florist and a stained-glass-window artist. It formed an economic empowerment center, where the group teaches a local population of African refugees language and business skills. And it finished out the space with a yoga studio and a community dance studio. Today, the church building is bustling most days, and the congregation is both covering expenses and generating revenue from its profit-sharing agreement with Missional Wisdom.
Next, the Missional Wisdom team partnered with Bethesda United Methodist Church in Asheville, North Carolina—a congregation with challenges similar to White Rock’s. Together, they created a community center called Haw Creek Commons. In addition to co-working space, they retrofitted the building with a textile and woodworking shop, meeting rooms that are used by local business and AA groups, a retreat space that can sleep up to nine, and a commercial kitchen in the basement for local bakers and chefs. Outside, Missional Wisdom constructed a community garden, food forest, beehives for the Haw Creek Bee Club, a greenhouse, and a playground for the children who attend the school next door.