Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church recently wrote an article titled ‘Does Your Church Really Need a Bigger Building’ that addresses a key issue among church circles today.
In a culture where the remnants of christendom are fading and where there is an increasing emphasis on church planting, the question that is highlighted in Warren’s title is incredibly apt.
I think the question of church building is dangerous. It is a pragmatic question because we want to do whatever is best to meet the needs of those whom we are charged to shepherd. However, for the very same reason, I am convinced that is in fact much more of a theological question than pragmatic. A robust theology of the church is needed to inform the church’s priorities because so much of what society dictates as important has unfortunately infiltrated the church.
Here are some of my thoughts based on my observations of a few churches over the past number of years.
From the Home
In the case of many Chinese churches, I’m afraid that the belief that ‘home = house’ has done exactly that for a church. In many Chinese people’s worldview, the consequence of migration and financial instability has resulted in an emphasis on the need for owning a physical house in order for the family to feel like it is their home. No it is not good enough to rent – you must buy and own. Now of course, like large church buildings, owning real estate is not necessarily a bad thing but I’m afraid that this narrative has become so paramount in our culture that owning property/ies has become an idol, even for Christians. It is very subtle because we mask it with excuses such as ‘providing for family’ or ‘being good stewards of finances’. God most certainly charges us, especially the men, to do these things but I don’t think it has to be expressed in buying a house – especially if doing so is living beyond one’s means. Again, I believe that there is real credit in owning property, but at what cost?
Having worked with many youth from Chinese family backgrounds, I’ve witnessed parents working round the clock in order to pay for the mortgage. I’ve seen the children of these families neglected and ignored as a result of mum and dad not being home during the day. To be fair, I have no doubt that these parents love their children have the best intentions in mind. They want to provide for their family by putting a roof over their heads, but they’re convinced that anything other than owning a house is not good enough. So instead of being content with their existing financial state and living within their means, they’ve compromised in areas such as family, relationships, and their spiritual wellbeing just for the sake of owning a house. They rarely see their children anymore, not least know how they’re going at school or what kind of friends they’re making. They barely have time for anything outside of work, not least cultivate healthy relationships with peers. And in many cases, they barely have time to develop a holistic life of discipleship because any hour spent not making money is an hour wasted.
I’ve unfortunately seen the devastating effects of families buying into the lie that real estate means stability, and the consequences are profound.
To the church
And so what about the church? Have we brought in a similar mentality to the way we treat the Bride of Christ? There is no doubt that many advocates for larger and more functional church buildings come out of good intention. But what happens when we all buy into the idea that every church needs a building?
I know a story that may not be very dissimilar to churches that you may know.
The said church has been running for awhile (a decade or two) and did not inherited a church building. Consequently, the church has had to hire other church buildings or schools to meet on Sundays and has had to move a few times during the course of her history. But the church came to a point where they believe that they now had to own a building. So the whole church rallied behind it and over the next few years, everything became about the church building. Everything.
Prayers became about the church building. Financial giving became about the church building. Conversations surrounded the church building. What’s worse, Bible reading and at times sermons were used to justify the church building. When you look at their weekly bulletins, you’ll realise that their weekly tithing was ‘x amount’ and right next to it is the building fund, which was at least 2 times the amount of the tithe! Prayer points that were raised at prayer meeting or on the back of their bulletins were about the church fund. And whenever the church celebrated something, it was because of the progress that they’ve seen in the construction of the building.
All this time, missions was neglected. Social justice was neglected. Evangelism was neglected. Discipleship was neglected. Ministries were neglected. By God’s grace the church saw numerical growth during those years but they were unable to hire more staff to accommodate for the needs because whatever funds they had were all committed to the building project. The local community wasn’t being reached because the one pastor already had his hands tied up in so many things. As a matter of fact, that pastor increasingly became burnt out because there was just too much to do. As the years went by, enthusiasm for the church building soared while the life of the believers were compromised. From what I heard and saw, people were leaving the church because they were not being fed. While I think that is not necessarily a strong reason to leave a church, I could totally understand because their minimal spiritual diet was not a result of a lack of giftedness (whether in preaching or teaching) from the church leaders, but a misplacement of priorities. The church had become more concerned about building buildings than building people.
It saddens me because the younger people were crying for help, yet no one in their church listened. The church powered on and completed the building but so what.
This is why I believe that we really need to clearly evaluate and assess our motivations for building projects because whenever a church emphasises something, it naturally de-emphasises other things. The reality is, a church can only do so much.
So once again, I don’t think church buildings are a bad thing but if the planning for the construction results in a compromise for why the church really exists, then we must park our ideas on the kerb and consider whether or not this is truly a good idea. If a church has the means to build a building then it may very well be a good idea. Rick Warren suggests constructing a multi-purpose facility so that the building is put to good use during the weekday and I think that is fantastic. A well constructed building can be such a blessing to the local community especially when it is used to engage them and provide a service. A church in the CBD of Sydney was recently re-constructed due to a fire incident where most of the building was burnt to the ground. The Senior Pastor of that church took me around once and talked to me about the architecture behind the building and its usage beyond Sundays. In addition to having extra fire precautions, the building was designed to be functional for other occasions. The example he gave was the way the church hired out its premises for university exams because it was close to three public universities. And as a result of hiring out the facility, it gave the church more publicity (because suddenly hundreds of students are walking into church for an exam), it served something other than the church, and the earnings from the lease enabled the church to hire more student ministers, which means more pastors trained and unleashed!
Not every church is going to be able to do the same but I think the priorities question still remains.
My church in Kingsgrove started as a church plant 5 years ago and a denomination graciously rented it out to us at an affordable rate. Consequently, we didn’t have to worry about spending exorbitant amounts of money financing a building and were able to do what the church was meant to do. I’m grateful that our senior minister didn’t put a strong emphasis on church building, and instead invested our finances on building people.
Furthermore, our most recent church plant in Bankstown was a result of 2 years of praying and planning. And I don’t think we would have been able to launch just 2 weeks ago if owning a church building was a priority. Instead, we were concerned with reaching the local community, building a strong core team, and doing whatever it takes to impact the lives of people with the gospel.
So my friends, a building like Prestonwood Baptist Church (see picture above) is amazing and can enable a church to do so many different kinds of ministries that other churches cannot. But when we go ahead with our plans, I believe it is wise stewardship to ask ourselves ‘what are we sacrificing?’ because we most certainly are. And ‘how important is this compared to everything else we do in the church?’ Because when Christ returns, that which He calls His bride is not the street address of your church, but the people who are in it. So regardless of whether it is a church, a school hall, or a cafe; if the supremacy of Christ found in the Scriptures is preached, then God is glorified.
‘I encourage you to experiment and look for ways to reach and grow people faster and cheaper, without buildings. Don’t let traditional methodology, or brick and mortar – or the lack of it – keep you from focusing on what matters most – changed lives!’