the controversy over church buildings

“But what we really need is money to build the church.  We want to be the best Christians we can be, and how can we do that without studying the Bible regularly?  And what if it rains while we’re studying?  You were here once when it rained — what did we do?”

“We all ran into the house,” I conceded, “and ate mangos while waiting for the rain to stop.  About an hour later we continued our Bible study”.

[Tanzanians are very afraid of rain.]

“See, how can we be Christians with those kinds of interruptions and disturbances?!  And don’t forget about evangelism.  We just studied today about how we should be making disciples.  We can’t make disciples without a building.  We need a big building with a tin roof, so people will come.

That’s how the conversation went.  All two hours of it.  And that’s how the conversation goes every time, more or less (though not usually for two hours).  On this particular day it went longer because a representative from a church in America was visiting.  And he smelled like money.

There are a couple of assumptions about church buildings in Tanzania:

  1. We’re not a church until we have a building.
  2. A church building is our number one tool for evangelism.  [And to most, musical instruments are number two.]

And these are just a few of the many questions to be asked on the subject:

  1. Are church buildings themselves good or bad?
  2. How much should cultural expectations play into decisions about buildings?
  3. Why do these expectations exist?
  4. From where should the money with which to build come?
  5. If the money doesn’t come from or through missionaries, how do we maintain good relationships with Christians in a culture in which money is (one of) the key(s) to relationship?
  6. If the money doesn’t come from or through missionaries, do I really have to have this conversation every single time I visit a church?
  7. What’s so bad about eating mangos during a weather-imposed intermission?  Churches in the states have donuts and coffee….
  8. If this church never completes their building, does that mean I’ll never have to listen to those awful keyboard tracks over huge speaker systems?

I don’t have all the answers.  Though I have my leanings.  In brief (and not corresponding number to number above), here are some of my own thoughts:

  • Church buildings carry no intrinsic goodness.  Nor are they bad in and of themselves.
  • It ought to be the decision of each congregation whether or not they build.
  • It ought to be the money of each congregation with which they build, should they decide to.  If others contribute to these funds, that’s great.
  • BUT it should be very clear to all involved that a building is no more necessary for a church to exist than is a family life center, a sign with our meeting times posted, a KJV-only requirement, donuts and coffee, or Trunk-or-Treat with jumpy bouncy toys for kids.
  • Church buildings may be good at getting people to come and be a part of your group, especially if they are already Christians or have interest in becoming Christians.
  • Church buildings are bad for church planting.  They make reproduction and multiplication difficult and (extremely) slow — not to mention expensive.
  • Church buildings seem to be a product of numbers.  Their presence and size is almost always directly related to the number of members.  Therefore discussions of church size should probably come before discussions of buildings.
  • I do not contribute any money to a building above what I contribute to the church in general.  [This is not due only to beliefs concerning sustainability, reproducibility, and the like, but also to beliefs concerning the number of churches asking and the number of dollars in my bank account.]
  • I ask my visitors not to contribute any money to a building above what they contribute to the church in general.  [This is due mostly to beliefs concerning sustainability, precedence-setting, etc.]
  • I prefer coffee to mangos, but mangos to donuts.

There’s a great discussion and series going on over at The Gospel Coalition concerning church buildings.  It is quite western in nature, but still very related to the subject at hand.

 What do you think about all this church building stuff?

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42 Comments

Filed under church planting, missionary predicaments, tanzania

42 responses to “the controversy over church buildings

  1. I really wish churches didn’t need buildings.

    The temptation to build a building that is “ours” is universal to any church organization, it appears. It seems that, without great effort, no church is happy meeting in a “place” that they do not own.

    This troubles me.

    Most churches claim a building and several acres and only use it a few hours every week. I would be bothered less if it were used more, loaned out to the community in a way. Most churches, however, become very possessive once they “own” a building and land, and go to great troubles to tell the community that they may NOT be there for anything besides church sponsored events. Our building is used for Girl Scouts meetings, and there have been complaints in the past about the Girl Scouts “making a mess”. (Which they did NOT.)

    Church buildings should be treated with respect and honor, but they should not be regarded as the temple of God and crumbs on the floor regarded as sinful. Buildings can be dedicated, but buildings cannot be holy. The temple of God is our heart.

    A local church plant met for a long time in our high school. I was so proud. I thought they had it right.

    Then they built a building. They were so happy. It made church so much easier. I’m not condemning them – that’s between them and God as to how they were to proceed – but it disappointed me.

    “Going to church” is such a misunderstood thing.

    I’ve heard my pastor say, with good intention, that the church is a place where Christians can come to get away from the world. A sanctuary.

    That bothers me, too. I bet you know why. I do understand that we need a place where we can be honest, a place where we can be vulnerable, a place where we can find refuge. But. If a church owns a building, should that become our safe place, or should it be a tool we use to bring the world to Jesus?

    There’s a tension here. I’ve seen churches basically destroyed by “building programs” where the physical building became the focus and completely changed the dynamic of the church. Yep, it was nice and beautiful, but the people stopped loving each other the way they did before. Being pretty was more important that being Christlike.

    I’d rather have a church that met in a barn and was real than a church that met in a cathedral but never resonated.

    If I were to start a church, I would fight, fight, fight to keep the focus off the building. Any building. Our church started on a patio, moved to a car wash, and then bought a cabinet shop. Frustratingly enough, it’s dying a slow death and we are still more concerned about the building than we are about people. Mowing the grass is more important than supporting missions.

    Focus on the people. Focus on the Bible, Focus on God. Don’t let buildings block the focus.

    • i would love to have a church that met in a barn. that would be ideal. open air, but protected from the rain. simple. humble. plenty large. relatively inexpensive, already there, and it gets used all week long.

      that’s the best idea i’ve ever heard, bernard. i may write a blog post about churches meeting in barns one day. that is, if you don’t mind. i’ll surely credit you with the idea….

  2. Hi Brett. I just discovered your blog. You make a great point with this article. What you state is so obvious it always makes me wonder why so many Christians are bound by buildings. The Lord never had a building. The apostles never had buildings. The first century community of saints never had buildings. There were essentially no buildings for three hundred years. Yet, our early brothers and sisters turned the Roman Empire on its ear. It began to rain and you all ran in the house. What about meeting in the house? That’s what they did in the beginning. The vast majority of Christian meetings in the beginning always took place in homes. They did not need nor want “church buildings.” The Lord was all about building people.
    Thanks,
    RJ

    • i’m with you, rj. i’d love to meet in houses, but i don’t think that’ll ever be a go here. at least not for churches of any size. and by “of any size,” i mean 3 families or more. the churches i’m working with are in very rural areas — villages. and houses are really small. they really only seem to be used for sleeping and waiting out the rain. it’s a very outdoor society.

      which would seem to lend itself to meeting under mango trees, which would probably be my preference. but i’d say the feelings that, in order to be a church, you must have a building, are even stronger here than in the states. much stronger, in fact. [though jason’s been here longer and may correct me on that…]

      but i’m mindful not only of early christians meeting in homes, but also of them gathering to pray at rivers and places of washing. that would be much more likely here than meeting in homes.

      • Right you are. By the way, I appreciate your work out there. The early Christians without doubt also met outside. They had no other viable venue for larger meetings. Much like during the Lord’s ministry, much of which took place outside, of course, early belivers met essentially wherever they could, but generally never built specific places for meetings. In your case, meeting under the mango trees is a perfect early church model. In American history we had “brush arbors.” In the very old camp meeting days, people brought their tents or simply stayed outside. The point is, the early believers never let not having a building to meet within stop them. In fact, it allowed for a better spreading of the Good News. Thanks.

  3. Ooops, forgot to subscribe to comments….

    • Tom McGlade

      I just bumped into this website, how nice that such matters are being discussed. I started off looking up verses on aliens and strangers and ended up here. My two cents on buildings etc is that for the most part christians make fairly lousey aliens. To steal a thought from MLK, we (the church) act more like a thermometer – reflecting the temperature of our surroundings than a thermostat – which actually sets the temperature.

      We see what works in the world, then assimilate those “works” in the name of Jesus. From demographic studies comissioned prior to selecting a building site, to marketing the Gospel package in a way which guarantees success – success being defined by the world’s standards.

      Here’s Jesus – a large number of people gather, of all things he preaches about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. The crowd evaporates. Evidently he didn’t pass evangelism 101.

      The main problem I have with the building issue is that typically (here in USA) the body doing the building has seperated itself from other believers by selecting a name. Then ,for reasons beyond comprehension, they apply to the state for the priviledge of giving up their church identity to become a new creation (corporation) beholden to the state. Having thus forfeited their natural right as a church to being tax exempt (under the US tax code), they, must beg for the 501C3 exemption. They are legally no longer a church in the eyes of the state just another corporate entity who must comply with the state’s regulations. What happened to the alien and strangers part of the equation?

      • thanks for coming by, tom. i agree that christians make pretty lousy aliens. i feel like that’s kind of the nature of 3rd soil christians, which is frankly what i feel at least 80% of us are: so concerned with the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth that we’re rendered fruitless.

        i’ve never really had a problem, though, with churches being corporations and having tax exemption, etc. but i’ve also never really thought about it. are most churches i know corporations, or is it just really big ones or what? i plead complete and total ignorance on this issue.

        • Tom McGlade

          JB, very interesting site!

          As far as what size church incorporates – they all do, big and small (except for most home churches). The main benefit of incorporation is lessening liability.

          Seems like a strange foundation for the Gospel, one might detect symptoms of our worldliness and fear. .
          TM

          • lessening liability, huh. interesting. thanks for filling me in.

          • @James – Yes, that is EXACTLY why our church of LESS THAN 100 incorporated about 4 years ago. It was about the second or third worst mistake we ever made. (I’m not positive of which was the first worst, but anyway….) The pastor at the time was terrified that our church could be sued and his personal property would be at risk. I probably had the power to stop the push, because of my influence, but I stupidly got on board and stood in favor of the thing. It’s not a matter of lessening liability for the church, but keeping it away from the pastor and the members themselves. The odds of our teensy weensy church getting sued are almost non-existent, and of us losing are even worse if there’s no negligence, but now we’re a corporation without automatic tax protection, and it sucks. Terrible mistake.

  4. I don’t know why, but pausing church for rain sounds absolutely lovely to me. I think because inside a church building we convince ourselves that we have control. Policies and schedules take priority. Rain seems more like God to me.

    • Agreed! Sometimes I wish church were more like eating mangos and watching the rain with some brothers and sisters than a schedule of events…

    • yeah, pausing for rain is kind of nice, i guess. and eating mangos isn’t bad either. becky, you’ve given me something great to think about.

  5. I totally agree with you about the Mangos over donuts. I could go for some good fresh fruit right about now.

    I’m not really sure I understand everything written above (I did read it all, though) but I’m facing my own dilemma lately, wondering if the church I attend is too big. It is easy to get lost in it. I want more of an intimate family atmosphere, but when my Sunday school class is bigger than most churches by itself…it is very hard to find that. I guess I think that is somewhat related to your post because I’ve always thought our church building looked more like a school. It’s huge. And the things I like the most about it are my small group (which doesn’t meet there) and the fact that I get to sit by my niece and nephew when I’m there. I think some may view it as God’s blessing that we have grown so large, but I prefer a much smaller church myself… (then you could say it isn’t about me, it is about bringing people in…but I think it intimidates the mess out of visitors – it did me!)

    I don’t have a solution to the way I feel or even a good way to define what really bothers me and even if I could, I’m not sure I’d know what to do about it so…I keep on for now. I don’t want to fall into the habit of criticizing church or churches or my home church because I think everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got, and I think God can bless what we do even if we miss the mark sometimes…

    Anyway, that may have absolutely nothing to do with what you’ve said above, but that is what it made me think about. You might be wrong about trunk-or-treat, though… I think it is probably necessary for a church to exist… 😉

    • jane, i think what you’re saying is very related. church buildings seem to be either a function of size or of big dreams about future size. and i’m like you, i’d prefer a smaller group of people with whom i could actually share my life and not just a bit of cracker and grape juice.

      i don’t live in the states, and so, don’t have to worry about this much, and so, probably haven’t thought through this completely, but… i think my preference would be a cell church of some sort (if i understand that term correctly) in which there are lots of small “churches” meeting in people’s homes that occasionally come together.

      in my mind the leadership (elders and deacons, etc) would stay much as they are for a large church, but we’d sell the building and primarily meet in homes. maybe we’d come together one sunday a month in a rented gymnasium or school cafeteria and celebrate within our larger community. but the bulk of building one another up (i think what i believe to be the main reason of meeting together) would be done in groups small enough that it can actually be achieved.

      an added benefit would be that much less money would go to operations and building costs, etc. it would instead be freed up to do trunk-or-treats once a month.

      • If more money could go to the trunk-or-treats, that would really be better, I think. 😉

        • that pretty much is our purpose, yes.

          • David Robinson

            I’m reading this a bit late because we cut the cord on our home internet, but the church group I’m hanging out with right now (www.adullamdenver.com) is doing almost exactly what your talking about- minus the trunk or treat. We’ve been on a 8-week building hiatus. Our old rat infested, non-air conditioned, abandoned building was torn down. I must say that I am pretty proud that I just went 8-weeks without stepping into a church building. We met in parks for the large gatherings and most of the “villages” (cells) met as they normally would. Last week we got back together for the first time in the new building (that we borrow). Now we’re meeting at the Denver Seminary (much nicer inside). And some wonderfully blessed soul brought gourmet donuts and I enjoyed a red velvet cake donut that was truly heavenly.

            No building can be done. It’s different, and many people won’t COME to your church, but I think it’s amazing.

          • i’m glad you guys are doing minus the trunk-or-treat. one of my least favorite activities churches do.

            are you able to actually borrow a meeting space at the seminary, or is it renting? i really want to be a part of a church that meets this way.

          • David Robinson

            I assume we are renting…not exactly sure. We literally just started last week in the new place. Frees up that donut budget though

  6. Jason Miller

    RJ,
    I totally agree with the overall sentiment in your comments. But isn’t it true that the early Jewish Christians actually did meet in buildings…called synagogues, for their special Christian worship after the more Jewish one. So maybe this wasn’t an issue for them due to the fact it wasn’t on their radar: they had the synagogue.

    As well, Greek Christians met in the temple of Dionysius for their more Christia…well, maybe not the Greek Christians.

    Anyway, just a note.

    Jason

    • Thanks, Jason. Actually, the Pharisees had a pretty good hold on the synagogues. The Lord preached in them when allowed. Paul did the same
      when welcome. But invariably, these visitations always caused divisions. Some believed. Some did not. But followers of the Lord did not gain
      control of synagogues. For about the first seven to ten years, all followers
      of the Lord were non-Gentile. They were descendants of Abraham. But they met primarily in each others homes. They also met in the temple
      courts for a while, but the temple was destroyed about forty years later.

  7. Jason Miller

    Brett,
    I agree with everything you said and the way you said it (much better than I would have or could have). And I would jump up and down on this post arm in arm with you in a mall parking lot in order to draw attention to it in the States…that is, if it weren’t for the fact its really just a figment of imaginative cyberspace. But here in TZ, I don’t know if I agree with you, as the church is absolutely (for good and bad) a product of each culture it manifests itself it. Instead I start asking myself the following bank of questions, such as:

    How do you participate in a culture that ties money into relationships (as opposed to us who do the opposite) without participating in monetary/friendship transactions? How do you become peoples’ friends on their terms and not on yours?

    Second, how do you tell people who live in mud huts they are placing overdue value on shelter (i.e., a building)? How do you tell them that their social need for a show of solidarity is misplaced when there is a looooong history here of instability (in life, in health, in marriage, in rain, in…etc.)? What about wanting to belong to something that is, as Penelope in O Brother Where Art Thou would put it, bonafide? Especially for TZ, when we know that one qualification of bonafide is having a building?

    Anyway, you know I struggle with these very questions (and many others in this vein) myself. I just thought I’d ask someone else (you) instead of just opting (resigning myself) to the usual ongoing conversation in my (oversized) head.

    • thanks for offering to hold my hand in a church parking lot. that is basically what you said, right?

      your question #1: “How do you participate in a culture that ties money into relationships (as opposed to us who do the opposite) without participating in monetary/friendship transactions? How do you become peoples’ friends on their terms and not on yours?”

      you’ll notice that i included this question in the questions section, but didn’t give an answer. it’s because i don’t know. i mean with my tanzanian friends i’ve worked hard (and against everything my western mind tells me) to allow friendships to be about money and broadening of contacts. [i’ve found introducing people to someone to widen their circle of friends (ie helpers) seems just as important as money. is that true?]

      but i don’t know how the money thing’s supposed to work with people who will never be in a position to help me monetarily. i think that’s why rich people aren’t supposed to be friends with poor people — there’s no opportunity for reciprocation. so what we’re doing by befriending people in villages is already so very against culture. i’m supposed to give them the honor of having a guest, the credibility of having a missionary, and the money for having a building. and i get…?

      it’s not that i want something. and in my mind i can see it as me getting meals and a place to sleep, etc. but i kind of assume they see that more as a benefit for them that i’ve blessed them with a guest. true or not true, i honestly don’t know?

      anyway, for now i’ve decided not to give above what i contribute during the sadaka, though i do give in accordance with what i have, which in both cases is a great deal more than others. and i help with requests for medical care and rides to places and a little with nauli to leaders’ meetings (thursday of this week).

      but ultimately i don’t know if this is enough. should i be paying for the tin to go on the roof?

    • #2 — “Second, how do you tell people who live in mud huts they are placing overdue value on shelter (i.e., a building)? How do you tell them that their social need for a show of solidarity is misplaced when there is a looooong history here of instability (in life, in health, in marriage, in rain, in…etc.)? What about wanting to belong to something that is, as Penelope in O Brother Where Art Thou would put it, bonafide? Especially for TZ, when we know that one qualification of bonafide is having a building?”

      i don’t know. but i like the mention of o brother. but i also don’t know that i have to tell them they place overdue value on a shelter.

      i’m certainly not against the buildings. i think they’re fine. or i’m mostly not against the buildings. if they want one, i think it’s great to build it. i just don’t want to be overly involved in the process.

      my only real complaint about buildings in the mission field is that if they’re deemed as necessary (and let’s be clear that they currently are), it likely means two things:

      1) we’re allowing our culture’s expectations to have a greater place of importance than the teachings of Jesus. [i’m not saying if we want a building, but rather if we blindly buy in that they are absolutely necessary. i’d say the same thing about a paid preacher or really a preacher at all. or about a certificate to go with baptism. i don’t think those things are wrong, but i want us to be clear they are unnecessary, before we buy in because culture tells us to.

      2) it will be a hindrance to multiplication.

      • Excellent point. It is all a matter of owning the house or the house owning us. So many Christians think so many material things are vitally necessary for ministry or ministry cannot be done. This causes us to be overly dependent on the material and not the spiritual. If we want to do what the Lord commanded us to do, we must stay lean and mobile, or proper multiplication will be impossible, or at best, very, very SLOW.

    • but those are just my thoughts. i don’t at all know if i’m right. and i certainly don’t understand the culture as well as you guys who’ve been here longer.

      i guess in my mind, i struggle with popular culture versus christian culture. i understand that christian culture can only exist within the other, but i also understand it shouldn’t just buy in to everything around it. there’s got to be some — i don’t want to call it a happy middle, but something like that.

  8. You know those assumptions you listed (2)? Are you sure you weren’t talking about the American church? For 5 years I pastored a church that met in a rented facility. Last October we moved into an existing Mormon church building (is that called redeeming something?) and things changed. Some good to be honest. Some bad to be equally honest. I am not a fan of church buildings but in this case, we live in a small town with no structures to rent, and the one we were renting kept raising the rent and not keeping their end of the bargain. But we also crossed an imaginary line when we moved. Long story but suspect the convo will go on and on. Good thoughts today Brett.

    • bill, those assumptions are surely also true in the american church. though to a lesser extent — i know that seems hard to believe. where do you think the feelings here came from?

      the african church on many counts looks like an caricature of the american church. over-exaggerate our “christian culture,” and you’ll likely get christianity here. at least in many cases.

      • This reminds me of something very humorous. Back in the seventies I was looking at a ministry publication put out by an American church ministry that had been doing evangelistic work in Africa. There were group pictures taken of the new converts. The over-exaggeration of our Christian culture did indeed result in quite a caricature. All the new converts were smiling really big with the obvious joy of the Lord. They were in various stages and types of western dress, short pants, long pants, etc. None of them wore any shoes. But I laughed out loud when I saw that all the men were wearing neckties!

        • that is really funny. and a good example of our caricatures. i’m always seeing pictures of bible school (or preacher training school) graduates dressed in very western clothes. though, what’s worse is that often those individuals were forced to learn english in order to take those classes. even though they’re expected to minister in their own languages. blah. talk about a colonial come to us model for ministry.

    • you’re right. i didn’t proofread. i started to write that they are AN over-exaggeration… and then changed words mid-sentence.

      and if i do hate you, it’s not for the reason that you corrected my grammar or spelling.

  9. Just found your site from ModernReject.com. Silly question, but do you live in Tanzania? How did you end up there? I’m curious!

    • i do indeed live in tanzania. though how i ended up here is a long story. in short, though, my wife really wanted to move to africa. and i really wanted to be a missionary. so we did some research and narrowed our options down to east africa. then we came here in 2005 and surveyed. after that, we formed a team. we moved here in march 2009.

      short answer, but i’ll be happy to go into more detail if you’ve got specific questions. you can also check out the “my story” page on the tabs up top, though it doesn’t say much about HOW we got here….

      and now it’s only fair you introduce yourself, malisa. and thanks for commenting; glad you came by.

  10. loved this post. I’m not a big fan of churches that meet in buildings with names and websites and the like. A huge advantage to meeting in shacks is that you’re close and community is formed. With a building comes performance and coming to hear sermons – which can take away from community closeness. The cost is a huge concern, as is the maintenance. I can understand how it would do something for the spirit and make them feel legitimate, but when you meet in a church you are in your own little world and not out in the big world.

  11. Pingback: the controversy over church buildings | aliens and strangers « Baptism « Church Leadership

  12. This week in West Africa I visited new communities of faith that pitched in together to build “stick” structures with palm coverings that made me think of the “brush arbors” my grandfather used to mention. I found it interesting that these people wanted tarps or zinc (tin) roofs for the rainy weather, yet many of their homes were palm covered. I applaud their work and participation in creating a meeting place larger than the size of their typical homes and the fact that these structures serve as community centers and schools. If structures are deemed necessary this is how I would recommend it be done–except I would prefer to see them using better practices in making their grass or palm roofs because they expect them to last longer and actually keep the rain out.

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