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Airbnb-like apps help churches hurting for cash during the pandemic rent themselves out

First, there was “glamping.” Now, you can go “champing.”

A church steeple in the sky. Churches in the U.S. and in the U.K. that have seen revenue decline during the pandemic are renting out space through Airbnb-like apps. (iStock)

After the death of their founding pastor a few years ago, membership at Cullen Missionary Baptist Church in Houston took a nosedive.

With revenue coming in from pledges shrinking — but not the expenses of keeping the church, which would take up nearly a city block, running — “we had more space than we knew what to do with and didn’t have the people or resources to pay for it,” said pastor Andre Jones.

That’s when the Cullen MBC turned to Church Space, a platform akin to Airbnb that allows houses of worship to rent their sanctuaries, fellowship halls and kitchens to other congregations and organizations, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars a year.

“Without Church Space, I don’t know if we would still be here,” said Jones. “Those funds and resources that came in have been lifesaving.”

Since covid-19 struck in March 2020, many churches have found themselves in Cullen MBC’s position. Faced with declining revenue and empty buildings, churches have looked for ways to make a virtue of unused space.

Some have rented out offices and classrooms for those working and learning remotely. Others have hosted “ghost kitchens” that allow restaurants without brick-and-mortar locations to prepare food for delivery services like Door Dash or Uber Eats. During the pandemic, Church Space has grown from 45 renters and churches to more than 3,700.

The boom in church rentals has its dark side. “We have also unfortunately seen a 200 percent increase in funeral rentals,” said Day Edwards, co-founder of Church Space.

But for churches in the United States and Britain, offering a variety of rentals to tourists, professional chefs or burned-out front-line workers has done undeniable good — sometimes offering church camping (known as “champing”) experiences to travelers has been the difference between eking by or closing altogether.

Edwards and her co-founder, Emmanuel Brown, launched Church Space in Houston in 2019. The churches that participated in the pilot program typically earned $23,000 to $38,000 in their first year, according to Edwards.

Church Space has about 150 host sites across the United States, mostly in the Bible Belt. Brown, a pastor himself, said Church Space is “for churches and by church leaders” and works to ensure that host churches are matched with renters who share their values.

“We truly believe that when churches earn more they’re able to do more, not just in their congregation but also in their community,” said Edwards.

The Church Space model allows participating churches to maintain their tax-exempt status, though the co-founders declined to share additional details. “It’s something that sets Church Space apart from the other competitors,” said Edwards.

In the United Kingdom, another Airbnb-like service operated from Yorkshire, England, is in the business of providing spiritual respite.

“Both Jasper and I were exhausted in parish ministry,” said Tina Hodges, who owns All Hallows, a former Anglican church, with her husband. “We both spent 20 years ordained as Anglican priests in the Church of England … I was meeting an awful lot of people who were in need of a retreat and was recognizing the need for sacred space.”

As “Eagle’s Retreat,” the former All Hallows, which sits on land where Christians have worshiped since the 6th century, features a renovated interior that highlights the building’s stained-glass windows, spiral staircase and barrel ceiling. It also includes updates like flat-screen TVs and a jacuzzi.

For additional fees, the couple offers services such as spiritual direction and marriage counseling. They also offer scholarships for those who can’t afford the stay, and according to the website, they “particularly welcome those who have been bereaved, bruised or worn down in life.”

The array of services in the sacred space seems perfectly suited to the pandemic. “I can’t even tell you how many holidays we’ve given for free this year,” said Hodges. “We’ve had a lot more people who’ve needed space or needed people to talk to … many people who are key workers, including ministers, who have just been falling apart at the seams.”

Hodges said that taking time to enjoy Yorkshire’s remote and scenic dales or soak in the church’s ancient beauty has brought healing to many of their guests.

“There are places where we have hallowed ground,” said Hodges. “And this is one of them.”

There are others: The United Kingdom offers those who don’t mind roughing it the chance to go church hopping. An organization called the Churches Conservation Trust offers champing in a historic sanctuary.

From April to October, champers can spend the night snuggled on camp beds in the sanctuaries of churches for a modest fee. (Dogs stay free.)

Lest champers feel guilty snoozing under the vaulted arches of a 17th-century country church, the proceeds go toward restoring the churches and providing jobs in the communities.

“Quite often, the churches themselves do not have a ready source of income,” said Guy Foreman, head of enterprise at Churches Conservation Trust. “Champing is very much part of a suite of opportunities that historic churches can utilize to build income that helps support their upkeep.”

Foreman said that while participation dipped in 2020, the current season is the “best we’ve ever had,” He attributed the popularity to U.K. citizens looking for a creative staycation.

A church-based charitable approach to vacationing is also the idea behind Mission Hotels, based in Nashville. The five-year-old company’s three refurbished churches no longer host weekly worship and instead host guests in beds fashioned with church pew headboards.

Mission Hotels’ model is similar to traditional Airbnbs except that most of the profits are donated to local charities.

Micah Lacher, owner of Mission Hotels, is a person of faith who sees the hotels as a way to continue the mission of the original churches.

“We are providing a refuge and home for our guests with every stay,” said Lacher. “We are pouring into the community and creatively meeting needs for those who are underserved. These churches were doing just the same when they were in the spaces.”

Lacher estimates that Mission Hotel’s donations have been used to provide more than 100,000 showers, meals and beds through their nonprofit partners Nashville Rescue Mission, ShowerUp Nashville, Room in the Inn and People Loving Nashville. — Religion News Service