One can get in real trouble challenging the sheer idolatry with which many church folk hold their church buildings, alas! In their minds the church is identified by its building (its memories, stained glass windows, etc.), and to question that sacrosanct place is tantamount to questioning God! Remember that Stephen got stoned for telling the Jewish folk in Jerusalem that God did not dwell in temples made with hands.

My recollection is that is was Howard Snyder (in his splendid book The Problem of Wineskins), who offered: that if you want to know how really ‘strong’ your church is, then, sell your church buildings. Such a proposal is likely to draw instant dismissal, if not contempt if offered. Or there is the fascinating episode in Buenos Aires at a time of serious and oppressive political turmoil, and the church became something of focus of the opposition, that Pastor Juan Carlos Ortiz did a pre-emptive move and had all of his very large congregation move for a season into house churches, just peradventure the state should seize their large church building. What happened, by the way, was that the church became more vigorous, and the giving to it increased over that period, because the believers came to know each other, and could discuss their mission in that context, as they had not been able in the vast Assemblies of God congregation when they were all together.

My involvement with a rather large number of churches that I have known in my 60 years of leadership has revealed to me that many of them had long since ceased to be formed by the gospel of the Kingdom of God (i.e., the primary New Testament message), if, indeed, they even remembered what it was. They had long since ceased to be any kind of a dynamic factor in the Mission of God (the missio dei).

It is also a proven fact that new church plants are much more likely to come together around an informed sense of their mission, and of the message. A place of meeting is strategic to their mission, but quite secondary. But as soon as that new church community comes together and begins to prove fruitful, there is the subtle temptation (satanic wile?) to secure their communal life with permanence by investing in buildings (which has given a lot of good architects a lot of business!) and institutional form. And once they have accomplished that, then the tendency is to become quite idolatrous about that place, that building, and that institution. Its purpose is no longer to engage in the costly obedience of the church’s mission, but to attract members to participate in their institution. But, again, such institutions and attractions tend to have little (if anything) to do with me mission of God, or the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

So back to Howard Snyder’s comment: If you want to know how really strong your church is, sell the building and focus again on the reality of Kingdom/New Creation community, the mission of God, and the gospel of the Kingdom of God. Certainly it will shake things up, but that’s not all bad.

Then, it might be worth looking down the road and realizing that the last traditionalist generation (the Boomers) will be turning 75 in about 20/20. The younger generations are not all that taken with such institutions, rather they want relationships, authenticity of message and mission. They may be the generation to deliver us from this colossal distraction with church buildings.

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About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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