Church basements can be places of transformation. Just think about all the AA/NA meetings, community meals, clothing closets, food pantries, and support groups–not to mention Bible studies and Sunday Schools–that meet in church basements. Both my own youth group as a teenager and the first youth group I pastored had our rooms in a corner of the basement, converted into fun hangouts with hand-me-down furniture, wild paint, and eclectic decor. I’ve sometimes felt the presence of God more clearly in church basements than I have in their sanctuaries. It’s often in the basement that things get real.
For the Church, it’s been painful to see congregations shrink and large buildings go empty and unused. For many, however, they have leveraged their unused space for new and different opportunities to love those in their communities. Fellowship halls become warming (and cooling) centers, soup kitchens, and community centers. Some have been converted to housing for the homeless. Some become whatever they need to be in the moment.
When my parents moved to Arizona to take on a new pastorate in a small mountain town of 5,000 people, they found a church with a great basement. It had been recently renovated with an updated kitchen, carpet, and paint. It was a source of pride for the church. But it became clear very early that this had been done solely for the enjoyment and benefit of the church members. When a church plant asked to rent the basement, the church board flatly said no. They worried what might happen to the new carpet. The church plant would not be the last group to be turned away under the current leadership.
Fast forward a few years and several board members later, and you see a completely different story. The church’s basement is home-base for outreach to the poor, hungry, and homeless, including two men who temporarily call the basement home. It took time, perseverance, and overcoming resistance to shift the conversation from protecting the carpet to caring for the destitute and desperate. In that time, also, the church’s reputation changed. Through partnerships and collaboration with like-minded churches and individuals, they have an outsized impact in their community. When one of the men who now lives in the basement was taken to the local Salvation Army, they were immediately referred to this little church for assistance. That’s a big change, and as far as I know, no one worries about the carpet anymore.
Their story isn’t unique, but it’s a reminder that even small churches in small communities can have a big impact if they’re willing to leverage what few resources they have and partner with other churches and individuals. Churches like these won’t have stories written about them in church growth magazines, but they will transform their communities and the people that live there.