Donna Schaper has been senior minister at Judson Memorial Church, a Baptist church in the heart of the West Village of New York City, since 2005. She is the author of more than ten books and a longtime social activist, and is a past participant in Collegeville Institute writing workshops.
Schaper has been working on a book about how Christians think of sacred real estate and also about their bodies as sacred temples. Susan Sink recently talked to her about these ideas.
Your manuscript is about the dilemma facing many churches concerning what to do with churches and church real estate as congregations are losing members. What are some good choices you see such congregations making about the use of their buildings?
The best choices congregations are making in terms of their buildings are to go full and go green. By full I mean using the space a lot of the time. The best way to do that is to engage more than one congregation to worship in a building (we have five congregations worshipping in ours). Going full leads to going green. Every time you fill a church with people the building is more green, because there is a better proportion of energy to use. You need to find ways to get income and energy into the building.
So you’re interested in finding ways to keep the buildings. I notice more and more churches, particularly rural ones, becoming coffee shops or converting to other purposes.
Here in New York they’re being turned into luxury apartments or fancy restaurants. The church buildings become very desacralized. It drives me crazy. I’m interested in mission-consistent reuses and adaptive uses, as opposed to becoming high end condos. Still, I know why churches are doing it and closing churches is sometimes a reality.
Congregations are overwhelmed by the buildings. Buildings are greedy; they are hungry. They demand resources for maintenance and operation. But it’s important for churches to retain ownership of the buildings, because people need and continue to respond to sacred spaces. So it is important not to shy away from the business end and find ways to make money from the space, in order to maintain something of the space’s original intention.
In particular, have more than one congregation worshipping in a space. Absent that, what about a theater, concert hall, or a rehearsal space for dancers? How can we rent it creatively without compromising the mission?
The decline in religious life is great. But I am hopeful there might be a chance for a renewal someplace down the road, and if we lose all these buildings we won’t have anything to work with. It’s important to keep ownership of them if possible.
Someone said, “If the church saved the arts in the Middle Ages, today the arts will save the churches.” I think that’s great. At our church [Judson Memorial] we have started a theater in our gym that’s been very successful. We make a lot of money from it and do plays that we love. We charge less than a typical New York theater and provide a service to the artists as well.
Some people might say you’re desacralizing the space by having a theater in it.
Yes, I’m sure some people do say that. But we need to embrace a blend between the sacred and what some people might consider “profane.” Worship, and matters bodily, such as making money off your space, are all sacred. I am an incarnationalist—Jesus blessed the material realities of our lives. We need to get over the notion that we’re doing something profane in theater or art or even by making money on the space.
It’s more important to keep ownership of the space instead of giving it over entirely to another purpose, like a coffee house. Instead of seeing it as a binary choice, why not blend? Blending activities is good. If you’re going to lose the space, that’s not a good use. Of course, some uses are more mission consistent than others.
The best thing we do at my church, where we’re experimenting with blending all the time, is a sober dance every Wednesday morning from 7-10. People can dance and not have to drink. We call them “morning glories” and the weekly event attracts hundreds of people. The event is very youth friendly, dynamic, and also shows a way to be forgiving of people who got in trouble with addiction. It’s not a meeting and not judgmental, just a place to dance.
In your manuscript, you say human bodies need sacred space and that the church is sacred space for nourishing our spirit. Can you explain why having a building is important?
Sacred space is a temple for the spirit or flesh for the spirit. In more than forty years as a minister I’ve had one fight after another about sacred space. They are always budget fights: should we feed the poor or fix the roof. It’s a difficult binary all the time. I argue that it’s not really a binary at all but a nested event: the roof and walls house the spirit of the people which then goes on to give them energy for feeding the poor. We want to do both with spiritual vigor.
I remember a quarrel with one of my wealthier parishioners in Riverhead, New York. She wanted to put a carillon in the steeple. I wanted her to fund the homeless shelter in the building, which housed 150 plus people a night. She refused, and the carillon went in. It cost $10,000. The first night it played at 5 p.m. At 5:15, I ran into my neighbor who was the executive director of the Methadone clinic next door. She had tears in her eyes. She said, “The music is so beautiful. It pierces the sky. It is going to help me get through the day.” Houses of worship help people of all kinds get through their day. Often we do it by feeding them spiritually. Sometimes we do it by feeding them physically. There is very little reason not to do both.
I was wrong in my approach to her gift. I was doing the “spirit good, money bad” thing that so many social activists have done for so long. We couldn’t see the centrality of spiritual hospitality to our ministries. We wanted doing good to be more important than it was. If people are not filled spiritually, they won’t be able to do the good that they want to do. Spiritually starving social activists may feel good about the maintenance they deferred in order to run their social programs, only to discover that they have no spiritual home, and no place to hold their programs.
One problem I’ve seen in our church is that people aren’t coming there for sacraments. Everyone wants a barn wedding. We only had two weddings in our Catholic church this summer.
That represents the spirituality of the moment. People want to find a place where they feel authentic. They feel more at home in a barn than a church. With the current ethos of “spiritual but not religious,” they feel dishonest being in a church. It doesn’t reflect what they believe or they don’t like what we’ve done or become as a church.
Personally, I’m one of those people lucky enough to have always been surrounded by great church—not phony churches, not bad churches. From childhood, I have always had good experiences with churches and have come to love the space of churches. I realize that’s not everyone’s experience, and the space of a barn might be more meaningful, or at least fun.
I understand that sacred space is at the same time real estate, and blending the realities of the two makes sense. But in what sense is real estate also sacred space?
I’ve been reading the Apostle Paul and thinking about the Incarnation. The Incarnation is about God taking on human flesh. In an analogous way, sacred space is incarnated real estate. Big things in our lives, the sacraments– hatching, matching, and dispatching– require sacred space. Sacraments are interrupted because we don’t have good spaces for them. I want to get back to these incarnated, holy spaces being places for real sacraments.
Our mission is to make beauty and let people come and dance and say truthful things, not merely doctrinal things. We should not just be hanging onto the buildings but rather creating beautiful and sacred spaces and then providing experiences in those spaces that are also authentic, true, and deeply sacramental.