Learning from the Tiny House Movement

By Ted Cunningham
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Facilities are important tools in reaching and leading people. I encourage you to walk through your facility as a guest. Maybe invite someone who has never visited your church to do a walk-through with you. See the space from their perspective.

If your family downsized, what is the smallest house you could live in? When you think about the rest of the world, that question seems ridiculous. Our family is obsessed with the Tiny House Movement (singles, couples, and families moving into homes ranging in size from 150 – 600 square feet). Our family has no plans of moving into 187 square feet anytime soon, but we are asking great questions.

  • How much stuff do we need?
  • Could we get rid of half of what we own? Which half?
  • If our closet shrunk by 90%, what clothes would we donate to Goodwill?
  • Could we sleep in a bedroom loft with a four-foot ceiling?
  • How big do our kitchen appliances need to be?
  • How many kitchen appliances do we need?

If each person was only allowed to bring one cedar trunk into the tiny house, what would be in your trunk?

Homes Look Different Than They Used To

According to Wikipedia, the average size of a new single-family home is 2,479 square feet, up from 1,780 square feet in 1978. Through the 80s and 90s our houses grew large as Baby Boomers expanded their businesses, companies, careers, and investment portfolios. They created the modern banking system that gave first-time homeowners generous mortgages and waived the traditional 20% down payment so families could afford bigger spaces to store more stuff.

I started church ministry at the peak of the church growth movement in 1996. Most of the conferences I attended were led by Baby Boomers. They taught us how to grow, expand, build, and fundraise. Seminary prepared me to teach, care, counsel, and lead, but I did not feel equipped with a strategy to grow a large, thriving congregation.

Please don’t hear me say I am against growth. I’m not. I just believe we slid into the church growth movement so quickly, that few asked the tough questions like…

  • What will this do to the soul and tenure of the pastor and staff?
  • What happens if we take out a huge mortgage and something happens to the economy?
  • How will our local ministries and global missions be affected if we spend big money on facilities?
  • Do we need to build huge education space if we’re moving towards small groups?

Whether you are startup church, big church, small church, or you’re considering a building campaign, moving into a new space, happy in your current space, or stuck in your facility for what seems like eternity, all of us can learn some great lessons from the Tiny House Movement.

Is Your Church Like a Tiny House?

A tiny house is simple. When you walk into a tiny house, your first thought is, “They have what they need without the extras.” I’ve been lost in hospitals more times than I can count. Moving through multiple wings of a hospital involves many hallways, walkways, and elevators. On a recent hospital visit I found myself outside between two buildings on the way to the car thinking to myself, “I don’t remember being outside on the way to the room.” Large, complicated facilities can be a hassle for first-time guests. Keep the facility simple with easy-to-read maps and signs.

A tiny house is built for function. One tiny house owner recently said, “If it doesn’t serve multiple purposes, we kick it to the curb.” I recently talked with a friend who shared his church’s vision to begin reaching their surrounding community through home groups. The big question was, “What do we do with over 100,000 square feet of education space we built years ago?” If we’re not careful, facilities quickly determine ministry or the lack thereof.

A tiny house is easy to maintain. A generous company came to Branson, Missouri years ago, and bought empty theaters for churches. It’s no surprise that our largest vacant theater has 4,000 seats and was built in the 1990s.

When one of our abandoned 2,500-seat theaters came on the market, many of our church members said, “We need to get that theater.” I had to come up with an elevator speech that I could repeat on Sundays. When asked about the property I responded by asking, “Have you ever vacuumed a football field?” “No,” was the usual answer. “Well, that theater has 10 football fields. Can we count on you to volunteer for facilities?,” I asked. Most of my friends responded with a smile and, “I get it.”

A tiny house frees you up. This flows from the easy-to-maintain point and is most attractive to my wife. Gary Smalley taught us years ago, “Every square foot you own owns you.” True. Think of all the time you would free up if you didn’t need to clean thousands of unnecessary square footage at your church. What ministries could you invest that time in? Ask your family tonight what they would do if the cleaning chores around your house were cut in half?

A tiny house avoids insane debt. The elders of our church have not allowed debt for 13 years now. We still meet in rented facilities and I am super grateful. One of our elders is a retired pastor who spent the last 5 years of his ministry mentoring pastors through capital campaigns. He worked for a national parachurch ministry that helped churches raise money. His primary role was to encourage pastors who were ready to give up on the campaign and their ministry. Debt is exhausting, debilitating and can ultimately stifle the growth of your church. Avoid it whenever possible.

A tiny house does not allow hoarding. My wife and I are often shocked by the amount of stuff churches keep in storage. We throw away or give away as much as we possibly can. For years, I was attached to our first church trailer. We used it when we did portable church in a movie theater, but it sat unused after we moved into our permanent facilities. Whenever my wife, Amy, hinted at getting rid of it, my nostalgia kicked in, and I wanted to hide it. Finally, I broke and we gave it to a pastor starting a church in Tallahassee, Florida.

Is It Time For Transformation In Your Church?

Is it time to do a little “spring cleaning” at your church? If you have used equipment sitting in storage, consider giving it to a startup church. How about wall dividers on wheels? Church planters love and need those! If your church has three vans and only needs two, consider giving one van to a church that has none. Oh yeah, that 6-foot-tall flip phone you used as a sermon prop 10 years ago should be thrown away immediately!

Amy serves our church as the Environments Director. Her passion is creating spaces that are warm and inviting. Facilities are important tools in reaching and leading people. I encourage you to walk through your facility as a guest. Maybe invite someone who has never visited your church to do a walk-through with you. See the space from their perspective.

We can learn a few things from the Tiny House Movement as we plan our ministries and facilities over the next 10 years. If you get a chance, watch an episode of HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters, and listen to the perspective of the homebuyers. It will encourage you as you plan new spaces and projects in the years to come. Try to keep it simple, functional, and easy to maintain as you avoid insane debt and clutter.

© 2015 Ted Cunningham. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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