Building a Community to Reach a Community

Church Buildings

A Biblical and Historical Perspective

Posted on August 01, 2013

Church buildings consume a lot of our resources. During a construction phase, the attention and energy they require can become almost all-consuming. Thereafter, churches will spend on average about 20% of their budget on the management and maintenance of their facilities. Many Christians have ethical issues with enormous sums spent on elaborate facilities when we are called to reach out to a world in desperate need. There is also a lot of emotional attachment to church buildings and their furnishings and so these things frequently become a source of contention and division in a congregation.

Is this just a necessary burden of our life as a church or are their alternative arrangements we could make? There is no mention of church buildings in the New Testament. In fact buildings constructed solely for the use of Christian congregations do not show up in church history for the first 300 years or so. Is that simply a matter of unique historical circumstances or is there in fact a bias against church buildings inherent in the teachings of the New Testament? If we come to the conclusion that church buildings are a great asset to our life and mission as local congregations, then what principles guide us in the kinds of buildings we erect? Is a simple, spartan facility more fitting for who we are called to be, or is a building that expresses beauty and grandeur more honoring to the God we serve? The New Testament offers little direct teaching on the matter, but there are other principles in the scripture which give us some direction.

The Silence of the New Testament

One must always be very cautious in drawing conclusions based solely on the example of the churches in the New Testament. Descriptions of what was done or not done are not by themselves prescriptions for today unless supported by scriptures that are specifically instructional in nature. The first Christians once chose leaders by casting lots. That is reported in the book of Acts as a fact of history. There is nothing in the rest of scripture that teaches us to make that a practice to be imitated today. The fact that the first Christians met in homes rather than separate buildings is nothing more than interesting historical information unless it can be shown that owning buildings hinders a church from fulfilling its purpose as clearly taught in scripture.

Some conclude that meeting in homes was simply the best arrangement for the first Christians because of the climate of animosity in which they functioned. The Jewish community viewed the early Christians as subversive to their religion and the Roman leadership class viewed them with suspicion because of their refusal to call Caesar Lord. It was necessary for the Christians to meet in ways that were as inconspicuous as possible. Others argue that the practice of meeting in homes continued even when it wasn’t necessary for reasons of safety. They never thought to construct church buildings because these believers were so focused on mission. They were pioneers pushing into new frontiers with the gospel rather than settlers interested in building more permanent structures.

The Unconventional Concept of Church Buildings in the New Testament

The New Testament writers are fond of describing the work God is doing in this present age as the construction of a building. The terminology used is that of a physical building, but it is without question the construction of a spiritual nature. Note these two examples:

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22)

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him — you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (I Peter 2:4-5)

According to the New Testament, the only legitimate way to use the word church is as a description of a group of believers who are being formed by God into a genuine community around the person of Christ. We all agree with that when pressed to be definitive. At the same time we have developed language that contradicts that notion. We insist on using the word church to describe a building: E.g. We go to church every Sunday. Our church is on 76 Ave. I was interested to discover that Filipino languages often use the word “church” as a verb. For example, they will not ask a person where they go to church. Instead they will ask “where do you church?” That is a better way to use the word. We need to be clear that when Christians leave their building, it is just an empty building, nothing more.

We Gather Together or We Do Not Function as a True Church

There are some religions that offer prescriptions for personal spiritual journeys. Whether or not you take that journey with others is largely irrelevant other than the fact that companionship is enjoyable no matter what we do. The Christian faith is not at all of that order. We function as family. We are intimately connected as members of a body. We are knit together in a fellowship of the Holy Spirit. We gather to worship and to learn and to care and to serve. Hebrews 10:24-25 exhorts us:” let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

If we are to gather regularly as a Christian community it means we need a place to gather. If we are privileged to live in moderate or tropical climates, meeting under a tree is a real possibility. Living in a Canadian climate means we have to consider more sheltered places to meet. It is a simple fact that the more of us that gather together at the same time, the more restricted our options of where to meet. Twenty people can meet in many of our homes but 40 can fit into very few of our homes. There are lots of rooms that can be rented at minimal cost for a group of 50 but reasonable options become more limited for 200 and more. Where the political and social climate permits and where resources are sufficient, buildings owned by church communities become the preferred options after reaching a certain size.

Some have started to ask the question about optimum size of church congregations and if by growing beyond that point it becomes more difficult to fulfill the purpose of the church as mandated in the New Testament. At various times there have been movements that emphasize multiplying churches rather than consolidating smaller churches into mega churches. That is a question beyond the scope of this paper, but it is an important consideration.

Should We Draw Any Conclusions from the Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Testament?

These facilities were the centers of worship for the people of God during the Old Testament era. They were built according to precise instructions given by God and were costly to construct. They featured plenty of ornate furnishings that were rich in symbolism. In Exodus 31:1-6 God informed Moses that he had specially equipped a group within the community with the skills necessary to do a superb job of building the tabernacle with a detail and a beauty that was fitting for the God who was worshipped therein. These places were considered holy in ways that no other place on earth was holy. God was present in these places in ways that he was not present among his people in all the other places they were. E.g. “For the Lord has chosen Zion, he has desired it for his dwelling.” (Psalm 132:13)

Some take what was done then and make a direct application into the present. They speak of a church building as “the House of the Lord”. They believe that lavish investment in church buildings follows the pattern of the Old Testament. There may be some truth in those ideas, but it must be tempered by what God has revealed about such things in the whole of scripture.

During the Old Testament era, God was operating under a different set of arrangements. He was revealing himself in particular ways through a single nation and in that context a centralized national shrine was important. The temple was designed as a preparatory facility leading to the sacrifice of Jesus. Providing for rich symbolism in striking fashion was an effective way to do that. After Jesus came, a new arrangement was put in place that focuses on his abiding presence among us and within us rather than an anticipation of his work of salvation. A central feature of our worship now is a simple meal in memory of the sacrifice of Jesus in contrast to an elaborate set of recurring sacrifices under the old covenant.

Furthermore, God now works through a multi-ethnic people who live subversively as the salt of the earth and who in their shared life become the body of Christ in the world. There is no more need to go to a holy place where God dwells, for the promise to God’s people is “Behold, I am with you always”. In a striking statement from Acts 17:24 we read that “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.”

It is not wrong to greet people on a Sunday morning by saying “Welcome to the house of the Lord”, because it is a facility dedicated to God’s work among us. But it would be more faithful to the teaching of the scripture if at least once in a while we would stand before everyone on a Sunday morning and say things like: “Welcome household of God to this time of worship!”

Church buildings may be a good thing for lots of reasons but it is no longer essential in the sense of having a holy place where God dwells and where we must go to meet him. In Ephesians 2:21 quoted earlier, Paul deliberately uses the term “temple” to speak of our collective identity as a Christian community. It would have been a rather shocking term for both Jews and Gentiles to read, with their fixation on physical temples as the place where God or gods dwelled. But it is a wonderful new reality all the same.

But what about the fact that when God did give instructions for places of worship, they were fairly impressive and ornate structures? Is that an enduring principle that applies to our facilities today?

The Splendor of God’s Holiness and the Grandeur of the Places Where We Worship

Psalm 96:9 says: Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. To be in awe of the splendor of God’s character and to be overwhelmed by a sense of his greatness is an integral part of genuine worship. Can those deep experiences go on in our head and our hearts simply through the prompting of the word of God and through music, or does architecture also play a role in prompting us to worship in appropriate ways? Is that sufficient reason to follow the example of the grandeur that was part of the design of the tabernacle and temple in the Old Testament era?

After World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill was insistent that the British Parliament be restored to its previous design in every detail. His famous statement at the time: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us. “ If we accept the truth of that statement, what does that mean in relation to church buildings?*

Worship in a small chapel in rural Alberta will often be a folksy, informal time. That may in large measure be a reflection of the local culture, but surely the simple, intimate design of the building also fosters that way of worship.

It has often been noted that even a group of boisterous grade 1 students will suddenly become quiet and solemn during a field trip to a grand cathedral with high ceilings, ornate furnishings and echo-y sound. Such architecture does little to foster community but surely fosters a spirit of awe and smallness before God. The big box mega churches of more recent times with their emphasis on a professional presentation fosters a sense of the energy of God’s presence along with a more consumerist approach to the Christian life. Church buildings with huge pulpits at the very center of the platform behind which only the pastor pronounces the word of God also fosters a certain way of being church – one that is much more word and doctrine centered than service oriented and one which promotes the distinction between clergy and laity.

Architecture is only one of many factors that contribute to the kind of church we become, but it does play a role and we need to be conscious of what values we are highlighting and promoting in the way we design and build our facilities.

Investing in Church Buildings vs. Reaching the World through Witness of Word and Deed

The compassion that Christians feel for the lost and suffering of our world often creates internal tension with regards to buildings. They simply absorb so much of our financial resources that we feel our mission to the world is thereby diminished. Such concern today is often expressed more forcefully by the younger generation of Christians than by the older. It must be said in passing that Christians who speak negatively about the investment in church buildings often do so while worshipping in a building that is there because earlier generations invested sacrificially in that building. But the concern they express is still legitimate.

The difference in the generations on this point often reflects a shift in understanding about how mission is accomplished. During the decades when Christianity was viewed favorably by a majority of Canadians, we could fairly successfully use an attractional model. We put on programs within our church building that were attractive to unbelievers who we invited to come and hear the gospel. Investing in buildings coincided with investing in mission.

For a majority of Canadians today who do not follow Christ, there are few things we can do inside a church building that they would be attracted to. We are really back to a time like the first century when mission occurs only when we intentionally go into the world to love people and serve people and make disciples. The younger generation of Christians have no knowledge of a time when the attractional model worked really well. Church for them is more a worship center and a resource center whereas our mission happens beyond our walls. Thus they feel more strongly the tension between investing in church buildings for our benefit and investing in God’s mission for the benefit of a lost world.

As we turn to the scriptures for help on this, we begin with Isaiah 58:6-8. Here God reveals his preference for us to express our faith and love for him in sacramental acts of service to the poor, hungry and oppressed rather than through religious rituals that have become routine. To the extent that spending on church buildings prevents us from serving the poor with generosity, we have lost our sense of God’s priority. The parable of the rich fool who tore down his barns to build bigger ones so that he could amass greater wealth (Luke 12:13-21) is most often applied to individuals and rightly so. But the church is literally a household of God and it is not a stretch to apply this to a local congregation that continues to add to its comforts and convenience and “is not rich toward God”.

But to turn this into a simple one or the other choice, either we indulge ourselves in nice buildings or we engage more fully in God’s mission is to oversimplify. There is a gospel story that affirms the value of extravagance in worship. John 12:1-8 tells of a woman who “wasted” about $30,000 worth of ointment in a single act of worship at the feet of Jesus. Judas fretted about how the money could have been better used to help the poor. Jesus basically ignores Judas comment because he knows it is a phony concern. There is also something unique about this moment in history. It was less than a week before Jesus crucifixion and Jesus saw this as a wonderful sign and testimony of the value of what he was going to accomplish in his death.

But in spite of these unique circumstances, there is an enduring truth that comes out of this passage: Sometimes generosity in worship rightly takes precedence over generosity to the poor. When Jesus commented that the poor are always around, he was not being dismissive of them, he was pointing out that there will be plenty of opportunities to be generous to the poor in the days to come and implies a confidence that one does not rob from the other. Those who are extravagant in worship, ironically perhaps, will also be the ones who are most extravagant in helping the poor. The ones who blather on and on about the poor, like Judas, will often be the last ones to put their money where their mouths are.

We must also call for consistency and integrity here. There is something wrong about Christians who are extremely generous in providing comforts and conveniences and spaciousness for their immediate family but are stingy in providing shared space for the whole family of God. A church building is a space that can be shared with a large group of people, even those who come after we are long gone from this earth. Our own homes are a blessing primarily to our own family though there is the possibility of opening our doors widely through hospitality.

It seems only fair to argue that the only Christians who have a right to speak up about disinvesting in church buildings in order to help the poor are those who are also disinvesting their own personal holdings for that same purpose.

One final point must be made in this section. There are times when a church may spend a large amount on a building in a short period of time. To evaluate if this is a balanced investment, the total amount should be divided by the number of years of anticipated use.

A City Set on a Hill

A church is not a secret society. It is through our community that Christ is made visible in the world today. Most people in our community could really care less about us and what we do so long as it does not impinge on their lives in any way. But a church building is inserted into a community. That physical presence gives impressions that either make us more welcome or less welcome. We most certainly do not want to have buildings that are merely impressive in the sense of giving off the aroma of worldly success. That would be counter-productive.

At the same time, our buildings must be a blessing to our community even by their appearance. Architectural consistency, craftsmanship, minimizing impact on neighbors with parking, beautifying with landscaping, proper maintenance, and sharing facilities where appropriate, are all subtle ways of communicating that we value the neighborhood in which we are located and we love our neighbors. That in itself is not the gospel but why would anyone want to hear the good news of Christ if our physical presence in a neighborhood feels like bad news?

Some Concluding Thoughts

A church should never have as its goal, the construction of an impressive building, thinking that such will by itself bring glory to God. It will not. Our goal is to be a people who worship God collectively from the heart; a people who serve God faithfully in the world, making disciples among all ethnic groups; a people who care for and build one another up in love and faith; a people who welcome the stranger and the vulnerable; a people who teach young and old in the way of Jesus. If a building helps us in the pursuit of those primary goals, we are right to invest in one, and we design it to maximize our effectiveness in fulfilling those specific purposes. If investing in a building in anyway diverts us from our primary purposes, to do so would become an act of disobedience.

We must think carefully about the biblical values we want to be expressed in whatever facilities we construct. Values like a welcoming environment, accessibility to all, safety for children, enhancement of teaching, fostering fellowship, beauty and awe in worship are all rooted in scripture. Values like success, entertainment, trendiness, pretentiousness, or stark bareness are definitely not biblical.

We will always live with some inherent tension between things like modesty and stateliness, paying for new technology vs. feeding the hungry. There is no simple formula to resolve that. It is back to prayer and listening to the Spirit for all of us.

Our inclination should be toward being minimalists when it comes to buildings but without sacrificing a sense of beauty. We should also search for ways to display grandeur and holiness of God with symbolism that does not break the bank. Unleashing the creativity within the congregation is one way to pursue that. A church building should reflect that Jesus is alive not that he continues to dwell in a barren tomb.

If our nation continues to become more antagonistic toward Christianity in general, the time will come when we will need to think of becoming less conspicuous and less dependent on tax breaks to support our facilities. This will have implications in the kind of meeting places we choose.

My thinking on this is still under construction. Your input is welcome (lee@zbcc.ca)

Pastor Lee Bertsch


*Thanks to a blog posting by David Gobel for prompting my thoughts about the way architecture shapes the dynamics of church life.

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