Church Buildings and Golden Calfs

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I do not write this post casually or easily.  I am well aware that my personal experience greatly skews my opinion on this issue.  But, to be fair, the honest comparison of personal experiences are what blogs are for.

All pictures in this post come from Real Clear Religions “ugliest churches” thread.  This one’s a real winner.

I got off the phone yesterday with an incredibly gifted pastor who started a church planting movement.  I interviewed him for a long time about what he did and why he did it, what worked and failed and the triumphs and travails.  After a decade of planting churches, God called him to be a pastor of a more traditional church.  He noted how awkward it was to transition from overseeing 9-10 churches, none of which had buildings but all of which had people, to return to a church that had a building but was losing people.

He didn’t give me too many details just that it was hard to switch from doing church without a building to shepherding a people who were only still doing church for the sake of keeping the building.  I felt for him.

It reminded me of another church in the middle of Kansas, whose sanctuary sat 75 but whose spirit was so strong, 200 crammed into it before they added on.

It also reminded me of several churches in Africa who meet underneath trees or on beaches.

It also reminded me of several churches who started out in living rooms, elementary schools, bars, idol temples and riversides (see Acts).

To be fair, this cries out “welcome” to some poor out there. #madmaxchurchofthenazarene

It then brought to mind my favorite quote from Phineas Bresee, who is credited as founding my denomination, who said, “We want places so plain that every board will say welcome to the poorest.”  To put it bluntly, “we” failed.

I am not against a church owning a building.  I am friends with several pastors who are blessed enough to have congregations who let their buildings be used 24/7 for all kinds of community gatherings that increase the welfare of the city.  Nor am I about to advocate for selling off my own congregation’s building, lacking though it is.  And if I were to advocate for it, our short term plan would certainly include another building.

Is this a building or a statue?  How do you even get inside?

Yet I have deep reservations about our buildings.  As I talk to church people I sense that their church’s building is some weird mix of a scapegoat and a god.  They worship the building.  They brag about it to their friends, even if the building is about to collapse!  They open it up and tell people, “come inside and you’ll meet God here,” seemingly forgetting that you will meet God everywhere.  They spend copious amounts of hours talking about the building’s needs and wants, trying to discern how to best sacrifice their dollars and manpower to the building’s never satiated appetite.  Then they pass legislation concerning the proper use of the building.  They argue about who can use it and why and when.  Then they invent rules for how the building will get used.  “Don’t throw balls.”  “No eating food.”  “No running.” “No wearing hats or wife beaters.”  This is all seemingly to keep from angering the cathedral as if it was a pouty 2 year old you dare not make scream.

When all else fails build a Jesus statue!

But when something goes wrong they blame the building.  “Not enough lighting!”  “The nursery’s in the wrong spot!”  “The ceilings too low, the greeting hall too small, the classrooms not well decorated.”  So they buy more paint, hire more engineers, add more parking spaces, all so that they can keep from facing the true problem, that our failures have everything to do with us and nothing to do with some paint and sheet rock.

On my own district 3 churches in the past decade spent over 1 million dollars adding to or replacing their buildings.  All 3 churches saw their attendance decline over the next 10 years.  When I point this out, it is argued, “Well the building had nothing to do with the decline.  It was just bad leadership.”

To which I reply, “Yep, you just proved my point exactly!”  If we were good leaders 300 people would gather under our trees.  If we were more obsessed with prayer and fasting, then 200 people would cram into our tiny sanctuaries and nobody would care about the “parking.”  If we sought the Holy Spirit more than we sought a better sanctinasium, then 100 people would stop surfing and gather on our beaches to hear our acoustic guitars and our readings from the Holy Book.  If we followed the Spirit, we wouldn’t stay in a building for all too long.

Instead our million dollar buildings merely placate and, ironically at the same time, extenuate our bad spiritual practices.

Except this church, it doesn’t placate or extenuate anything.

Maybe what we need is not a new water heater or a better lit sanctuary or a bigger classroom and fewer “balls” in the church, but more devoted souls.  Maybe we need eyes that eagerly desire the kingdom of God.  Maybe we need hands folded in prayer, and knees bent in a begging posture while mouths plead for God to move.  Maybe our hearts should break for the lost and lonely and maybe our arms should be outstretched towards our communities.

Yes you can have all those things and still have a building and yes, a posture of prayer would even have an effect on why you have a building and what you use it for, but as long as your budgets and calendars are skewed towards “building,” your building will continue to empty of people.

Not sure which posture produced this design!

But if you forget about your building and open your mouths to pray, well it just might happen that our tree or our beach or our borrowed bar would be all God would need to gather the lost and lonely in for worship.

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A Sermon Somewhere: The Gospel of Junk Management

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I joke a lot about the classes seminary did not offer.  I do not do so as a way of insulting my education (which was incredible) but as a way of reminding myself that you don’t go to school to learn what to think but how to think.

Still, there were some classes I wish they had offered.  I wish they had a class on how to paint church rooms in a way that offends no one, though I am not sure anybody has mastered that.  It would have been nice to take a course on how to purge your membership list and a lesson or two on making great potluck courses also would have been nice.

But more than anything, it would be really nice to have taken a class (or even achieved a minor) in how to organize, clean, and get rid of stuff inside a church.

I have now had some form of official ministry responsibilities in 4 churches and at least 3 of them seemed to be cathedrals to the gospel of junk management.  It all started when I was a junior in college and I walked into a gigantic room at my local church.  It had been the kid’s church at one point in time but at that moment it was piled completely with junk, one large pile that stretched from wall to wall and from the floor to the ceiling.

I asked the children’s pastor about it and she firmly explained that “some people” insist the church not collect junk but they are wrong.  Instead it is unethical to throw church stuff away because, “you never know when you are going to need it.”  Throwing away something useful that belongs to God is poor stewardship.

Needless to say, she moved onto another ministry assignment a month later and one of the first things I asked the new children’s pastor was, “Can I throw away all this junk?”  He gladly obliged.

A few years later I ended up a senior pastor of a small church with a gigantic facility.  While I was interviewing, I toured room after room that was packed with junk, useless things that nobody would ever need.  We spent an entire year cleaning it all out.

Now I have just taken over the pastoral responsibilities for yet one more assignment and, sure enough, the parsonage and church building are both packed with junk before my arrival.

It seems we have bought into a shallow and non biblical view of stewardship that says God is glorified by how much stuff we accumulate in our ever expanding buildings, not by how many stray and lonely people we welcome into our loving communities.

If the idea is to build a large building and then stuff them with junk for Jesus than we are certainly winning.  We may not be able to take any of it with us when we cross from this life to the next, but at least God will be so “glorified” that our mansions in glory will come prestuffed with old curriculum, televisions from the 1960s, flannelgraphs, blackboards, christmas lights and fake flowers that smell like Lysol.  I can’t wait to die and move in!

At the same time I am reading Henri Nouwen’s, “Road to Daybreak.”  I plan to review it when I finish it but this afternoon I read a brief part about a church in Morienval, France.  The building was built in 1050AD by a group of nuns.  It has three rows, a clock tower and a semicircular choir loft flanked by two elegant towers.  Nouwen prayed the vespers there during Advent one year.  He did so with nuns and monks from the area.  He left the service all ready longing to return because as he put it, “the church was built for prayer” (p. 80).

That sentence made me wonder what our church buildings are built for.  .  .

And there has to be a sermon in there somewhere, but good luck finding it beneath all that junk.