I have a congregation that is reduced to just a handful of active members, none of them young. They’re housed in a broken-down, maintenance-long-deferred church over 100 years old. Bricks are falling off, a whole section of the building is separating so that squirrels and raccoons squeeze in, the stained-glass windows are falling out, we have damage from termites and black mold, and leaking roofs have left rusty spots on the old tin ceilings. It stinks—literally.
The church members know they can’t continue to worship there, although thus far, we’ve not been successful in finding a buyer. But if we do sell, what then?
There is almost a desperation in the congregation to not be without a building of their own. I’ve suggested a house church or renting a room from another church or organization. But even with such a weak congregation, having their own building seems to be their absolute minimum requirement. They’d rather continue in that horrible building, with two short pews occupied on the best Sabbath, than to be without a building of their own. One of our church members discovered a little church building far, far out in the country (one that’s been for sale for a long time, for the good reason that a congregation can’t survive there), and they’ve decided to spend their capital there (provided they’re able to sell) rather than be without a church home for even a short period of time.
I’ve pastored in every sort of church building—from the embarrassingly horrible to the brand-new, multi-milliondollar, envy-of-the-community building. In most of them, I believe we’ve spent more board meeting time talking about church buildings and the money to buy and maintain them than we have talking about ministry. Large or small, buildings dominate church life. Planning, constructing, and paying for a $6 million church took countless hours of planning and work. On the other hand, we recently had a lengthy discussion in one church board meeting about fixing the flush handle on the men’s urinal, to which an elder responded with a lecture on how it uses too much water anyway and that he had placed a Styrofoam cup next to the sink for men to pour a bit of water into the urinal after each use. And, he scolded, whoever’s throwing away the cup needs to stop!
That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
It’s in those moments that I realize how easily we forget about the world “out there.” We exist for our building, not for our ministry. We say we’d like other people to join us in our building, yet the church isn’t designed to be especially hospitable to new people. For example, what if they don’t know the correct usage of the urinal cup?
After all these years of being a pastor, I confess that I’ve become heartily sick of spending so much time and money on church structures—building new ones or maintaining old ones. These are structures we use only a few hours per week. Congregations seem to define themselves by their buildings, not by their people. Take away the building and who are we? Even start-up congregations that begin in rented spaces dream of having their own building. Yet I think it could be argued that buildings encourage our tendency to be a private club. They create a territory that’s hard for strangers to enter. They gather us together rather than pushing us out in the world where we should be.
How important are church buildings to the work of Jesus? Vital or a necessary evil? I don’t know the answer, but I’d welcome some discussion.
Loren Seibold is a district pastor of the Ohio Conference and lives in Columbus, Ohio, USA.