Church Buildings: They're actually useful!

Yesterday on Out of Ur, author, pastor and all-around swell guy Dan Kimball recanted of his earlier belief that church buildings are nothing more than a drain on resources and propagate consumer Christianity.

My anti-building phase was a reaction to having seen so much money spent on church facilities, often for non-essential, luxury items. I was also reacting to a philosophy of ministry that treated church buildings like Disneyland; a place consumers gather for entertainment. But these abuses had caused me to unfairly dismiss the potential blessing of buildings as well.

Understandably, there are a lot of people who feel this way. It can become very easy to see the church building as the goal, rather than a tool to be used to forward the gospel in our communities. And that was the thing that helped Dan see the value of the building:

When we planted our church in 2004, we needed a place to meet. We found a very traditional church building that had a sizable “fellowship hall” originally used only for donuts and coffee on Sundays. Wanting to use the building differently, we converted the fellowship hall into a public coffee lounge featuring music and art from the outside community. The Abbey, as it’s now called, is open seven days a week and offers free internet access.

Just yesterday I was in The Abbey and saw about 20 people, not part of our congregation, studying and hanging out. (During finals week I counted 90 students packed into the place.) While there I talked to a brand new Christian who has been coming to our gatherings. He found out about our church from a Buddhist friend. His friend loves coming to The Abbey and recommended our church because he trusted us.

We’ve also used our building to serve our community in times of crisis. When wildfires forced nearby residents to flee their homes, our building became an overnight refuge for those without a place to stay.

These missional opportunities would not be possible without a building.

I know there are a lot who would disagree with me, but a building is important. Not because it’s a status simple or an indicator that a church has arrived (wherever the destination may be), but because it’s a wonderful and helpful tool to further the name of Christ in our communities when used well.

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  • Wes

    There are plenty of Christian organizations and businesses in my area (and I would suspect in a LOT of areas) that do this same thing and are not affiliated with a church, nor reside in one. They get just as much praise for what they do and who they are than those in the story you just shared.

    Can a building be helpful for the cause? Yes, as you just presented. But, from my experiences, buildings have caused more grief and trouble than what they’re worth. You factor in the financial issues, like Mr. Kimball said, and you’re looking at a rather hefty mortgage every month… and that’s not even bringing inflated real estate prices into the equation. Or taxes. Or code enforcement. Or maintenance. Or personnel to do all those things.

    It can also ruin atmosphere and environment for the congregation. The church that my wife and I were attending for about a year started out as a nomadic church which met in school gymnasiums and, during the summer, under a big tent on their office property. This is what attracted us to the church to begin with. The atmosphere was great, especially under the tent. Talk about being in the community, openly worshiping God! We were next to a bowling alley and a Hindu meeting place, on Sunday mornings when bowling leagues were happening. Apparently the Hindu’s meet on Sunday’s as well. There was obviously a lot of potential to be a physical light in a dark world. Unfortunately, they were bent on getting a permanent building, “all their own”. So they did. And bought a little, traditional gospel church building with a white steeple for $250,000. Also, the building happened to be only a couple blocks from two other churches that were very similar in style and mission to ours. Ever since then, the atmosphere that they had, and the attitude and vibe that the church gave out before while being nomadic, faded in the months to come. People were caught up in tight rows of seats which hindered fellowshipping after the service. The architecture degraded the previously young and inspired sense of the congregation (in our eyes), and detracted from the overall feel.

    Also, the church initially had to raise another $25,000 to get the building up to code (which, in the end, wasn’t completely up to code anyhow), purchase multi-media equipment, and to furnish the place. And ever since, the church has been struggling to sell their old office building while barely meeting their weekly and monthly offering figures. It’s been a year now, and they’re still in the same predicament.

    The church I went to before that had their own problems with facilities. They didn’t have a mortgage anymore, but struggled with space and arrangement. And, like most churches, the funds to do all those things.

    My point is that there are more cases where a building hurts the church and alters the focus of their mission so much that their original cause is either diluted or lost in the chaos. I’ve seen it too many times. And while I can’t deny that there are certain cases where churches are blessed with a building and have turned it into a place that embodies the mission God has called us to, I can’t, honestly, condone church buildings overall. It’s definitely a case-by-case situation. And I’ll repeat: more often than not, the church will get into financial-, atmospheric-, or focus-related problems that are not worth the existence of a building “all their own”.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      Great feedback Wes. I can definitely identify with having seen the building become “the thing” rather than a tool to be used well. At our previous church, we went through a massive multi-million dollar building campaign and for the longest time when someone asked about what church we were a part of, they’d say “Oh, that’s the one that’s building a building, right?”

      Unfortunately, that’s all we were known for. But it wasn’t really coming from the leadership, it was the congregation that drove that attitude.

      Now, the building they have is actually well suited for being a “missional center” as Dan Kimball described in his article and people are starting to get that, but it’s a process for a lot. And for me, it really the whole thing did leave a bad taste in my mouth re: building campaigns. So much so that I was really leery when our current church started talking about buildings.

      But our leadership has been great about explaining the “why” in very practical, “missional” and financial terms. They’re also being very clear that this thing is not going to be what our church is about and that anything that takes our eyes off Jesus is a detriment.

      I guess if I could encourage you in any way would be to say don’t give up on the idea that a congregation can use a building welll; strong leadership can and will keep people’s focus on the right thing.

  • Wes

    Thank you for the encouragement, Aaron. And I try my hardest to keep an open mind with church buildings. It’s very difficult for me, though.

    I had a revelation while reading your reply. My wife and I are currently searching for a new church to call home (a task that I also struggle through). I hadn’t had a great list of things that I was looking for in a church. I mainly just wanted it to be a different experience than most churches are.

    However, your mentioning leadership (good leadership) and to trust them that they’re making the right decisions has sparked something. Last weekend, we went to a new church for a trial run. Unbeknown to us, they’re in a transitional phase and will welcome their new pastor this coming Sunday. So the message was by a guest pastor on what the congregation should do to assist him. He preached from Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” I have trouble with certain messages that are recurrent in the church. Leaders/authority is one of these.

    Like you, I have a problem with authority. And I have a major problem with messages in a church wrongly emphasizing authority. The message last week was about how we should “obey” (TNIV uses “have confidence in”) our leaders. My struggle is with obeying bad leaders, which we all know exist.

    My past two churches (the one I “grew up” in, and the one that bought the building) had at least questionable leadership. The first church definitely had more than questionable leadership, but that’s another issue. You and the pastor last week both brought up having trust in them (or as the TNIV says, having confidence in them). Hebrews tells us this is so because they are held accountable to God for us and where they take us on this earth.

    So… all that to say: I will make it a top point in my church search to look for leadership that I can put my faith in; people I know I can trust and am confident that they are leading us in the right direction. Thank you for the spark of revelation, Aaron.

    • Aaron Armstrong

      And thank you, Wes for sharing this. It means a lot. I’ll be praying for you in your search :)

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