A Theology of Buildings, Ministry, and High-Cost Tools, Part 1

The church campus (our church currently has three campuses) I serve at is about to undertake a remodel/building project. I’m pretty excited about it, because it will give the high school ministry a bit bigger of a meeting space, while focusing on providing more room for small groups to meet at church.

As we’ve been meeting with our architect and drawing up plans, it’s hard for my mind not to wander to the purpose and need of buildings in the life of a church. I’m thankful that I serve at a church that approaches buildings and construction conservatively (spend what we have, NOT what money we think will come in if we have a really cool building). Still, in our last meeting, we talked about the need to determine what kind of audio/visual equipment we’d like to have in our new meeting space, and I found myself struggling with making a distinction between what would be fun to have and what tools I feel is really necessary for how God is leading us to serve our church and community. So, I emailed my good friend and missionary (currently serving in Kenya) Jim to see what he thought. He’s got an amazing heart for God’s Kingdom and is a really sharp thinker and writer. I was interested in his response, because he’s anything but a bells-and-whistles kind of guy; he grew up in a church that gives away a huge chunk of its budget to domestic and international missions (I believe it’s one-half of the budget, but I haven’t double-checked that). Here’s what I asked him (I’ve provided just the highlights):

What role does a building play in church life? I think our church approaches building conservatively…I just wonder what buildings really do, such as our new youth rooms (not really new construction, just moving locations and pushing some walls around). Are we building cathedrals that will one day sit empty like the grand cathedrals in Europe?…Do we really need to spend thousands on a sound system for high school students? Or could I teach the word of God just as effectively with a Bible and a bullhorn?

Here are some highlights of his response (shared with permission):

Heh! Easy question… *sarcasm*

It’s easy to say that a fancy building is NOT what the church should be about. The early church had NO building. Yes, a Bible and bullhorn is probably just as good as a thousands of dollar sound system with lights and fog… Much more effective than a bullhorn and a Bible is a meal and a conversation or a cup of Starbucks and some prayer or just working alongside somebody for a few hours. I think making a more ‘interactive’ experience with the audience probably makes it even easier to fall into the trap of attending church for the experience rather than focusing on experiencing God. So not only is it easy to argue that a cutting-edge building is unnecessary, but even detrimental.

BUT – the American church has great value – even her conventions. The ripest fruit sits in American churches expecting a certain experience… and a good sound system. That experience is probably an easier ‘in’ for an authentic gospel than anywhere else in the world. Give the sleeping heart an experience – that gets interested people in the door. Then through radical personal interaction with a few, maybe a large-scale change can be triggered. The Western church needs revival (to use an old-fashioned and over-used term). Nice sound systems will NOT bring it, but it does attract what might be the largest crowd in the world that is ripe for authentic revival. The way we think about Christianity in the West needs to change. A state-of-the-art building will not change it in the least – it’s probably a negative reinforcement – but there is great potential for a radically different faith sitting in ‘pews’ every Sunday. Using convention to capture their attention/vision for a moment could be one of our most effective tools for spreading a desire for relationship with Christ and radical faith with Him, as I see it.

In part 2 I’ll try to organize my thoughts into a “theology of buildings and ministry tools” for lack of a better phrase. What do you think about the questions I posed to Jim or his response?

Update: Read part 2 here.

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