Prerequisites for establishing and sustaining a church today, assuming we adopt the Americanized definition of “church” around a place and pastors, include:
- Reputable leadership
- Hard working staff
- Generous members
- Relevant activities and programs
- A temporary or permanent location
Optional features not required by America’s model for “church” and rarely observed these days, yet essential to the ministry of Jesus and life of the early church, include:
- Intensive discipleship
- Personal evangelism
- Continual compassion
Whether a church makes disciples, has members who share their faith or is active in local missions will not make or break a modern-day church. However, it will have a difficult time surviving a pastor’s “fall from grace”, economic downturns, or inability to eventually buy or build its own facility.
Americans love buildings. Owning our own home is the pinnacle of the American dream. Erecting a permanent structure gives us a sense of accomplishment and validation. For a company, acquiring or constructing an office building is a stamp of approval authenticating its legitimacy. Philanthropists donate millions in exchange for naming libraries and museums after them, feeling fulfillment in leaving a physical legacy that will outlive them. For a church plant, moving into a building it can “call our own” is a sign that “we’ve made it” – finally, no more setting up for weekend services every Friday or Saturday night. Members, pastors and staff all are excited and celebrate the milestone – anxiously inviting any and all to show off the new “digs”.
The world’s system might revolve around physical assets and status, but the Lord’s system is based on love and grace. Throughout scripture we see numerous examples where even believers mistakenly assume that God is speaking about worldly buildings and structures when He’s actually talking about Himself (the author of love and grace):
- “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19)
- “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Matthew 21:42)
- “…on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18)
…or they jump to shallow conclusions because they’re impressed with buildings and celebrities, drawing their attention away from Jesus:
- “Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” He asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another…” (Matthew 24:1-2)
- “Peter said to him, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what he was saying.)” (Luke 9:33)
- “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1 Corinthians 3:4-5)
As Stephen says in Acts 7:48-49, “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands…What kind of house will you build for me?” The Lord cannot be confined to a building. Jesus spent most of His time on earth not with the religious establishment but out in the community with the destitute, ill, uneducated and “objectionable”. (see #WWJB – Where Would Jesus Be)
It Can Be Hard to See Jesus Through Brick Walls
Church buildings require significant capital to acquire or construct – and to maintain. Members are the only source of funds for a church. Those upfront investments and ongoing expenses increase the risk of making congregations uncomfortable. Many pastors hesitate to bring up biblical mandates like the Great Commission and accountability for sin during building campaigns.
The more expensive the property the greater the pressures to ensure people show up next Sunday and to count “nickels and noses”. Churches, just like a family, often start off “house poor”, overextended when first purchasing a home in anticipation of the “family” growing in size. Because that church “home”, like the family’s new house, is underutilized at first it often carries with it a significant financial obligation, putting a strain on those responsible for paying the mortgage.
In those cases, it behooves church leaders to perpetuate a place-centric and pastor-centric definition of “church”. America’s consumer culture has conditioned Christians to pay for value received. To attract and retain members, church leaders offer a valuable service to their congregations by assuming their rightful evangelistic and disciple-making responsibilities. Gospel sharing for congregants is often reduced to inviting people to church next Sunday to fill those new seats. Churchgoers no longer must endure apologetics training, intensive discipleship or uncomfortable conversations with non-believers, happy to abdicate and compensate the “paid professionals”.
To summarize this blog post and our prior post, two structures have been erected to accommodate the Americanized, institutionalized definition of “church”:
- the “veil” (i.e. pastoral “performance”)
- the “4 walls” (i.e. physical buildings)
Those impermeable objects combine to obscure and block our view of the biblical meaning of “church” (i.e. people, not a place), impeding Gospel proliferation and inhibiting personal relationships with Jesus Christ. Centralizing church around a pastor rebuilds the “veil” that Jesus tore (when He died on the cross), reinserting intermediaries between God and man by elevating pastors beyond their intended role. Centralizing church around a building relieves Christians, both individually and collectively, of their duty to step outside their comfort zones and “own” their positions as the hands and feet of Christ. Both obstructions (to discipleship) in effect reduce the role of church members to “Invite/Involve/Invest”, today’s prevailing church growth model.
Studies show that the “veil” and the “4 walls” are discouraging non-believers from coming into church. Millennials have a general mistrust of institutions and a poor perception of organized religion. They’re having difficulty seeing Jesus through the “veil” and “walls” that blur their vision of who He is. Even many faithful believers are joining the ranks of the “Dones” who love the Lord but have had bad experiences with “church as we know it”. The overall percentage of frequent churchgoers is decreasing. Defining church as pastors and buildings isn’t leading more people to enter in or keeping them there once they’re inside.
It’s Not Wrong to Have a Church Building
The implications of all this is not that a church shouldn’t have a building. but means church leaders should:
- Redefine “Church” – As the narcissism of a salvation culture overtook the selflessness of a repentance culture, linchpin terms of the Christian faith were skewed to favor man rather than to glorify God:
- “Church” – A physical location run by a pastor versus an ekklesia (“assembly of called out ones”)
- “Outreach” – Marketing our church versus our individual obligation for “prayer, care and share”
- “Ministry” – Serving in a particular capacity at a church versus our Great Commission from Jesus
- Expand “Footprint” – Rather than settling for packing into a “skyscraper” each weekend that covers little ground, decentralize your structure into smaller fellowships scattered throughout the community, empowering and equipping each one to intentionally minister to those around them
- Increase Utilization – Fully utilize your building’s square footage between Sundays, being better stewards of God’s resources by filling the space with compassionate programs and activities that meet the needs of families in your local area
- Build Disciples – Measure “success” not by square footage but by the number of disciples, making your church a training center with members treated more like employees than consumers, tasked with pursuing the real “customer” (the lost outside the “4 walls”)
- Commission Disciples – Orient your approach more toward “go” than “come”, deploying disciples into their network of relationships rather than leveraging attractional strategies to pull people away from relationships into a church sub-culture (with mixed, expense-driven motives)
- Control Expenses – Do not get in an overextended position where high fixed costs of buildings and salaries tempt leaders to usurp responsibilities of members in hopes they’ll become more dependent on “paid professionals” and compensate them accordingly
- Never Compromise – Resist urges to downplay the Great Commission or accountability for sin, challenging churchgoers to disrupt their status quo for the cause of Christ and refusing to advertise features of your church that cater to worldly desires
What’s also not wrong (and perhaps more in line with biblical precedents) is to meet in homes, avoiding onerous financial obligations that invite compromise and blind far too many people in America to the biblical definition and purpose of “church”.
It’s Your Turn
How have you seen the “veil” and “4 walls” create segregation and segmentation of Christians from the world, reducing that church’s growth, impact, influence and public perception?