Friday, January 11, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Does Your Building Matter?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: I’m prowling the Internet, as is my wont, and encountering discussion on the subject of whether a church building can impede one’s efforts to grow a local church. Take for example this meditation, from Abby Stocker at Christianity Today:

“Our worship spaces matter. The music, preaching, and community obviously influence our church experience, but building styles also communicate something to the congregation about what is proper in worship. A central stage outfitted with a drumset probably means the music will be emotional and modern. Feel free to wave your hands, dance, however the Spirit leads you. Kneelers will probably be dedicated to congregational, possibly liturgical, prayer. Space for a mosh pit signifies ... you’re probably not at, say, a small intimate gathering based primarily on discussion of a text.”

So here we are, left to consider how the apostle Paul might have felt about a mosh pit. Immanuel Can, please help me out here.

Immanuel Can: Why, Tom: have you fallen into the mosh pit?

Tom: Oh how I wish I had, and taken a few solid shots to the head in the bargain. Sadly, I remain my usual self. Take that as you please. My question is this, good sir: Everyone is discussing WHY their buildings matter. I’d like to ask the question “DOES your building matter?” I’m deeply concerned that this obsession with physical structures is evidence of a comprehensive lack of understanding within Christendom about our mandate as believers.

A Barrier to Faith?

So let’s play it their way: Can a church building really be an impediment to sinners coming to faith in Christ?

IC: Good sir, surely you jest.

There is not even the mention of a “church building” in the whole Bible. That would be passing strange if the Lord thought them essential to his work, would it not? But to be fair, perhaps that’s because there were no in-church gymnasia, bowling alleys and food courts in those days ...

Tom: I’m going to cry now. First question: Am I nuts to believe that we ought to look back to the New Testament for direction about the local church? Because my crazy theory is that we have nothing else in the whole world with the remotest demonstrable connection to what might actually please the Head of the Church. Given that inarguable fact, how can anyone even begin to assert that his will for us in our day involves things that no Jewish, Greek or Roman Christian could have remotely imagined?

IC: That’s a good point. If the ancient church, the medieval church, the early Protestant church and the 19th century church did not have something, how on earth could it suddenly become essential to have that same thing in the 21st century? Whatever is essential to being a church, it can’t be things the church couldn’t always have ...

Tom: To cover all the bases though, do you think it’s possible for a church building to be a genuine deterrent to the growing faith of a new believer or, not to put too fine a point on it, to be the reason someone slips from heaven into hell? Not that I think for a second that evangelism is the mandate of the church ...

IC: Given that last statement (with which I most heartily agree), how could it?

Architecturally-Dependent Life

Now, can buildings be inconvenient? Sure. Can some be more useful for the kinds of meetings we conventionally conceive? Sure. Can some be more useful for recreation than others? Sure. Can some be acoustically awful and inhibiting to singing or sermons? A good many are. Can some be distracting and create additional interference to congregational activities? Sure. But none of that impinges on the question of whether a local church even needs a particular building. The life of the church is not an architecturally-dependent thing. What say you?

Tom: Well, oddly enough, that is actually the conclusion the author of the piece in Christianity Today came to as well. She says, “But neither wooden pew nor theatre seat holds a trump card when it comes to worship. Maybe the ugly churches, by defying expectations, are on to something.”

What seems to me to be driving the desire to make sure a building is up to snuff by the standards of a community in need of Christ is the mistaken notion that the church is corporately responsible for evangelism. If so, then it necessarily devolves on us to discover the means by which we might pool our funds to win the neighborhood. But if the church exists for something other than the neighborhood in which it was originally built (God forbid) …

The Purpose of the Church

IC: Far from forbidding it, I’d suggest you’ve got his position on the subject. The church is never an organ of evangelism in scripture. It is individual Christians who must all do that. The church is nowhere charged to evangelize the neighborhood, nor to care about what building it happens to occupy. Its vitality comes from its organic connection to the Head, and its purpose is the promotion of the believers’ relationship to Christ. Its activities are edification and worship, not evangelism.

After 2,000 years, the fact that we don’t all know this is worse than embarrassing; it’s toxic.

Tom: Abby Stocker is not wrong that “building styles … communicate something to the congregation about what is proper in worship.” But I guess I find myself despairing that Abby is possibly the only modern I’ve read that uses the word “worship” in a biblical sense. At least occasionally.

And what if we had no buildings? What if persecution forced those of us who might remain faithful into each other’s living rooms? How is that we are actually discussing whether a reno might make our buildings more appealing to the unconverted parents of the kids who might hypothetically attend our outreach ministries?

IC: For too long we’ve been consoling ourselves that things like buildings and evangelistic services are what real church life is all about. And let’s face it; if that’s all we get, we’ll starve to death — and the world will remain unreached for Christ. Not only that, we’ll remain silly, immature and powerless to use our gifts. It’s really time we got past all that. The problem is that we’re afraid to be honest, because it would mean admitting we’ve been derelict in our duty for decades now, if not for most of the last century.

But hey, what’s the alternative to repentance?

Do Local Churches Need A Retirement Plan?

Tom: I truly don’t know. Here’s part of the problem though: it’s a sense that if we set up something and call it a “church”, and it functions and serves its purpose for fifty or a hundred years, that it must continue where it is until the Lord returns. Where is that written in scripture? How has that been established? I know we have an attachment to it, but if nobody in the church currently lives where the building is located, why are we imagining that we have some mystical obligation to transform the neighborhood surrounding it? If that particular neighborhood is so all-fired important, let’s sell our houses in the suburbs and move into it. If not, then let’s not pretend it has some magic quality because there used to be a real church there.

IC: That’s a really good point. We often feel a great deal of freedom to decide when to create a new church or a new ministry … but who ever thinks about how to shut one down? Yet why would it be the case that a single location or strategy would last forever? And isn’t it better to shut it down well, with thankfulness and for the right reasons, rather than to let it die of sheer irrelevance or to continue only on artificial respiration because it no longer represents what the Spirit wants us to be doing at a given time?

Churches and Their Neighborhoods

Tom: To the best of my knowledge, only one of the four elders in the local church I attend lives within 20 kilometres of the patch of real estate that is home to the church over which they have spiritual responsibility. If that church is to continue to function, does it not make sense for those who allegedly value it to make the community around that building a more significant priority than the quality of life one may or may not achieve by relocating to the suburbs?

Or perhaps the surrounding community is not as big a priority as is often made out.

IC: Oh indeed. I once attended a congregation in which everyone was of a rather pasty, Western European ethnicity, and yet the entire community consisted of Mediterranean types and various Caribbean backgrounds. Most of the people who went there lived a considerable distance away too. One wonders whom they were serving; it was not their own interests, as the location was no longer proximal to their own living arrangements; but neither were they serving the community in which the building was located, since the Western European culture of the place kept the locals away from the doors.

Tom: I’ve seen this over and over again in inner-city churches.

IC: There is a terrible lack of self-awareness in all that, and I remember wondering what it would take for anyone there to see what was so patently obvious to any person coming in from the outside.

But it had happened to them gradually, you see; and at no point had the transition been so sudden as to require action of them at that precise moment. The balance between their old way and the new realities came on so incrementally they never awoke to it. And years later, they were still absurdly playing out the roles and forms they had always occupied in precisely the cultural ways they always had.

Humans are creatures of habit. And unfortunately those habits can persist long after the last rational reason for sustaining them is long gone.

Tom: I am astounded by the distance some folks drive to go to church. But, you see, doesn’t that effectively inoculate you from prioritizing a personal witness where you actually live? I mean, say you witness to your neighbors out in the ’burbs: you have a Bible study in your home and it bears fruit and you have new Christians who want to take the next step. Where do you take them? If you point them to a suburban church three blocks down the road from where you both live, the obvious question is “Why don’t you go there if it’s so great?”

The Building vs. the Testimony

So it becomes easier to think in terms of corporate witness rather than personal witness and say things like, “We have to maintain a testimony in the neighborhood” — always meaning the neighborhood of the building itself rather than your own.

IC: But of course, buildings don’t have testimonies. And the community is largely oblivious to how a local church is functioning, even when that congregation has some “outreach” programs. The vast majority in any community has no real sense of what we do. So the testimony is not from the building or even the congregation, but from the believers individually. And sadly, that is what the focus on buildings or corporate “testimony” replaces in the perception and practices of believers.

Tom: Now of course what some Christians mean by “testimony” is not a specific message about Christ but rather the appearance of good citizenship or — dare we admit it — respectability. These believers worry that the buildings “lack visual appeal”, “repel those who have never been inside” or have “little visible exposure”; that they have “cramped foyers” or look like a church from Little House on the Prairie.

If the biblical mandate of the church were to bring in the neighborhood to hear the message, such concerns might be warranted. And we may concede that a person whose gut reactions are purely natural rather than spiritual might be repelled by a run-down church exterior, just as Naaman was repelled by the Jordan River.

What Price Functionality?

IC: Well, to be fair, there is this: IF we are going to meet in a designated common building (and that’s only an “if”, not a necessity), but IF we are going to do it, and IF we’re going to spend the Lord’s money to make that happen, then it is true that good stewardship suggests that the building must be serviceable for the major biblical functions of the local church — learning good doctrine, congregational singing, fellowship, worship, prayers and so on. And it might be fair to say that some buildings are a liability.

Tom: With that I would agree, though perhaps more in terms of their failure to suit the needs of the believers who meet there rather than a failure of testimony.

IC: One thing I’ve really noticed is that despite the fact that singing and speaker are part of our practice, very few of our buildings are really acoustically excellent — and bad sound can hamper these activities. So building design is not an entirely irrelevant matter, but …

Tom: No, it’s not. But are good acoustics worth millions of dollars? Maybe if you have a huge congregation that gives so generously that it can take care of its scriptural priorities in giving while simultaneously carrying a massive mortgage.

IC: I was just going to say it’s far from clear that we need most of these buildings in the first place, as all the essential activities can also be conducted without buying a building, and at much less expense than running one.

Tom: Well, for people who love big congregations, those options are limited these days. Renting schools, which used to be a viable alternative, is becoming increasingly costly for Christians in some areas of Canada (though, curiously, not for Muslims).

But back to the public “testimony” of a building for a second: I just can’t see that anyone who is genuinely saved, indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God and sealed until the day of redemption, no matter how untaught or immature, is going to reject the truth because of the age of the building in which it is being taught, or its poor design, or its location. And here’s a really horrible thought — are we just looking for a pseudo-biblical excuse to build nicer edifices for ourselves?

Taking It to the Living Room

IC: Hey, I’ve got an idea: you know what really impresses people? Not a nice foyer, but when you invite them into your own home and show them kindness with food and love. So how about we forget about the building for a moment and ask whether or not our own homes are being used as locations in which the truth of Christ is taught, and from which the love of Christ is manifest both to our brothers and sisters and to our neighborhoods?

Or is that too radical?


  1. In my community we're right on the cusp of 'doing something' about our building. It's still usable for most of what we do, but is a bit tight for any events involving more attendees than usual (concerts, meals, holidays etcetera). Increasingly we are flaunting fire codes or moving a lot of chairs up and down stairs between meetings. But whatever we eventually choose to do (move? build an addition? branch out to another part of the city?) has costs and down-sides that must be weighed.

    At the same time, anyone who has their finger up into the wind can see that a number of social forces are arraying themselves against local churches. The legal tools that will be used to 'encourage' doctrinal conformity with evolving social norms all revolve around our buildings, our wallets and our tax-free status. The government believes (rightly to some degree) that financial support of a local church entitles public say into what is practiced and taught within a local building.

    I rather strongly suspect that in the very short term, we will be asked/told - nicely at first but with increasing legal and financial force should we resist - to change many long standing doctrinal positions, most of them revolving around women's roles, gender identification, "homophobia" and so forth. It is - initially at least - the dollars and fondness invested in our local buildings that will allow increasing force to be applied to our elders, our buildings and our incorporated status.

    It is possible of course to apply legal pressure to those who meet in smaller groups in homes or rented facilities in a far less formal fashion - and that will happen too I suspect. But we can make it very easy for those who wish to change the teaching of the local church to do so by investing heavily in large and impressive facilities. We ought to think long and hard before doing anything more than the bare minimum - it's not the part of the operation that's going to last very long anyway.

  2. It seems that when there is little material left to talk about that stretching a topic will fill in the silence. Just like rolling the dough a little too thin to make it stretch to cover the pie. This seems to be one of those occasions. So let me add to the dough to make it fit better.

    In principle there is absolutely no reason why one should not have (build) various types of structures (churches) for a variety of reasons, just like with the temple (the church that actually is mentioned in the Bible) to properly honor God without being stingy, it being justified by its intention. To uplift the spirit with soring arches and features. To set worship apart from (above) our daily grind. To show the community what their cash is capable of and that it was put to good use. I did have to look up mosh pit and it's definitely not something I can relate to, especially with a bad back.

    Also, of course it is possible that church buildings can be an impediment to sinners. We always point out to our friends, who have not been to church for 20 years, that they now must be careful since the building will probably come down should they set foot in it.