Are church buildings a help or hindrance?

church

With the exception of about four months, the last five years of our family’s church life has been spent in rented facilities. The first church we attended moved into a high school here in London for about a year while construction was completed on a new facility. A few months after the church building was completed, we left and found ourselves back in a rented facility—in fact, before too long, we were back at the same high school we were in only months prior!

Within weeks of our starting to attend, the announcement was made: they had begun praying for God to open the door to the church having a permanent facility.

A capital campaign was upon us.

At that point, we were a bit twitchy. We’d just left a church that had wrapped up an all-consuming building project and weren’t terribly anxious to dive back into those waters. A lot of questions came to mind:

  • How much were we planning on spending?
  • Would we find ourselves neck-deep in debt in a down economy as so many other congregations in our city had?
  • Did we really need a building at all or could we keep going with a rented facility?

In some ways, it’s the last question that was most significant.

We all have a tendency to place too much or too little emphasis on a particular thing (whether in ministry circles or in everyday life). For many people in North America, home ownership is one of those things; you’re not “really” an adult unless you own a house (or at least that was the message we distinctly picked up on when we foolishly bought a house. Then God smartened us up and we got out). That same thinking sometimes gets transferred to churches, too—if we’re not in a permanent facility we’re not a “real” church. We’re homeless.

Apparently.

Our church has been actively meeting for about 13 years. In that time, we’ve always rented. Land is at a premium here and, honestly, our city isn’t big on new church buildings being built (there’s no tax revenue in it for them, after all). Clearly we’ve been able to pull it off and do it really, really well. The church is growing, people are meeting Jesus and we’ve been able to be a positive witness to the local school board (which is a really good thing!).

But renting has its limitations, to be sure. In our case, it means we have to make sure the school looks like we were never there. The school can end our rental agreement on extremely short notice if they so desire. Volunteers work extremely hard to make the available space work for our needs (a difficulty with a large children’s ministry).

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

One could just as easily make a case for saying buildings are absolutely necessary as one saying they’re not needed at all. But maybe when we ask whether or not buildings are necessary we’re asking the wrong question.

Maybe we need to ask if they’re a help or hindrance to us as a church.

When we look at that question, we don’t get to start and stop with surface level understandings—we have to examine our hearts. Permanent facilities have great practical benefit but they carry with them the potential to be a dangerous idol for any church. The focus can too easily shift from Jesus and the gospel to “the Building.”

And as soon as that happens your ministry is hindered.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. What I love and appreciate about how our pastors and facilities team has handled our own building project is how they’ve handled it with a great deal of sensitivity. They clearly see the building as a tool to further the church’s ministry, rather than a goal in and of itself. And because of that, they’ve not succumbed to the temptation to become overwhelmed with debt by rushing. Instead, careful and consistent prayer has been what’s modeled to the congregation.

And if that’s what we’re seeing, then the facility, when it eventually arrives, is only going to be a help to the church’s ministry in this city.

What’s your take: Do you believe church buildings are a help or hindrance to ministry? Why?