Interestingly, church history shows an inverse ratio between dynamic church multiplication and preoccupation with buildings. Emphasis on buildings is generally linked with relatively slow growth or even decline.
Rapidly growing movements generally put little stress on buildings, tending toward pragmatism and flexibility, meeting wherever they can. The exception: If large subsidies are available, rapid church growth and focus on buildings may go together for a generation or two before the building-centeredness begins to sap church vitality.
Jesus showed a radical attitude toward the Jerusalem temple. He claimed that he himself fulfilled the temple's meaning and function.
Through Jesus true worship can occur any time, any place. Jesus says in Matthew 18:20, "Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." The physical temple is now theologically unnecessary.
Through Jesus' incarnation and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit, the church itself has become the temple of God. Since Pentecost, buildings are no longer God's dwelling. God now "tabernacles" and "temples" in communities of disciples who meet together in Jesus' name.
Why then do congregations devote so much attention to buildings? Buildings are places where ministry happens, so most congregations argue that they need to be good stewards of these facilitiesand that takes time and money. But in some cases, presuppositions about what church ministries are supposed to look likeincluding athletic facilities, more and larger meeting rooms, etc.put church leaders under pressure to build and build when it might not be the best investment for the church. Buildings are not wrong, but congregations, like everyone else, tend to have expectations. Expectations regarding facilities can easily grow out of proportion to ministry. It would be a major task to retrain the expectations of U.S. Christians, but certainly one way is to ensure that the building (or potential new building) is a ministry tool. Leaders must help Christians perceive it in those terms.
Many Christians sincerely believe that church buildings are "God's house"holy places, set apart for divine purposes. And many church buildings do indeed give glory to God in both their architecture and their use. Still, this view can easily distort biblical teaching about Jesus Christ and the church, causing an exaggerated focus on buildings and budgets, and eclipsing the biblical focus on Christian community (koinonia)close Christian fellowship seven days a week, not just a few hours on Sundays.
The solution is to recover the focus on Jesus Christ and the meaning of Spirit-community in him. The earliest church thrived as a network of house churches, without church buildings. None of the New Testament writers complained about this lack. So churches today should sort out their priorities.
Churches can consider various options: turning buildings into seven-days-a-week multi-use facilities; sharing facilities with other organizations or churches; moving most church functions into homes or other venues. Some churches have found that the most faithful option is to sell their real estate and invest the money in missions and ministry to the poor, where the long-term dividends are much higher.
It is generally a sign of church renewal when a congregation rediscovers real Christian community and Jesus-like ministry in the worldand as a result, begins either to de-emphasize church buildings or turns "God's house" into a genuine resource for multiplied ministry to those in need.
This does not mean de-emphasizing worship; rather it means discovering the outward missional thrust of worship that we so easily lose when our focus is primarily inward, within four walls. The percentage of a church's budget spent on gospel outreach (locally and globally) is generally a good indicator of spiritual health. Lively churches typically spend more on missions, evangelism, and justice and relief ministries than they do on staff and facilities.
Jesus-centered churches know how to keep their priorities straight.
Howard A. Snyder is professor of the history and theology of mission at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky.
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The Relational Tithe tries to connect people with needs and resources so that givers and receivers have no more than one degree of separation. Their Embezzlement Paper, written by the pastor of a large, midwestern church, says that the Old Testament principle of a tithe does not support using the money to maintain institutional structures.
After losing their building to the city of Cincinnati, Vineyard Central decided to go without a building. They now meet weekly in homes, some in intentional community "attempting to serve the poor and build bridges into their lives by living among them."
Earlier Good Question columns include:
Are some people lost "just a little bit" in the same way that others are saved "only as through fire"?
How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?
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