Evangelism professor Mark Teasdale writes that, while a church building demands respect, too many congregations let upkeep of their facilities become more important than serving God’s purposes. Churches need to be open to renting, selling, or redesigning buildings to further God’s mission.
Church buildings are more than just brick, mortar, wood, nails, and shingles. They are holy ground. Even though we know “the church” is the people of God, many of us were raised to associate the word church with a building. We “go to church” or we see “a church” on the street corner. We were likely also taught to think of that church building as “God’s house.” A church building demanded respect.
Sometimes we allow our facilities, not God’s purposes, to become the primary beneficiary of our work and resources. Instead, we need to view our buildings as expendable resources God has given us for being in mission.
Church buildings are places where we mark critical passages in our lives. They are where we baptize, confirm, marry, bury, pray for the sick, and celebrate milestones. They are also where we may have felt the presence of God either directly or indirectly or through the care we have received from God’s people. For all these reasons, it is easy for congregations to feel a deep affection for their facilities. They are the physical manifestation of God’s presence, the fortress to which they can return for calm and protection from the outside world, and an architecturally visible reminder in the community that the Christian faith is still alive and well in the neighborhood. It is little wonder that congregations often use pictures of their buildings as prominent features in their marketing and that congregations frequently spend a large portion of their resources on maintaining their buildings.
When buildings hinder mission
For all the benefits of having such a special congregational space, buildings can also be one of the greatest hindrances to congregations being in mission. Time, effort, and money that could be freed for engaging in mission go into sustaining the building. This is especially problematic for smaller congregations that are just making ends meet. The congregation begins to exist for the sake of keeping up the building as a monument to their faithfulness rather than the building being a tool that can be expended in the mission of God.
Sometimes we allow our facilities, not God’s purposes, to become the primary beneficiary of our work and resources. Instead, we need to view our buildings as expendable resources God has given us for being in mission. This is painful for all the reasons we have discussed. It is hard to let go of a church building without feeling like a failure. Yet God’s home is wherever God’s people are. Remember, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20). He also said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:20) In other words, Jesus never looked for a physical home on earth; he looked for a people who would gather in his name, and he made his home wherever they were. No building necessary.
Ministry beyond buildings
For this reason, congregations should be willing to move their ministry beyond their buildings, even selling their buildings if the money they derive from the sale will be better provision for staying faithful to God’s mission. As uncomfortable a tactic as this might be, it is preferable to God “shaking” us out of our buildings because our loyalty was focused on them rather than on making disciples.
To take this step, congregations should connect with outside groups to help them assess whether their buildings are holding them back. For those congregations that can keep their buildings, they should commit to not overextending their resources in maintaining their facilities.
Mission, ministry, and mortar
Mike Slaughter, pastor of Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio, offers one way of doing this. He recommends placing all congregational expenses into three large categories: mission, ministry, and mortar.
- Mission is everything the congregation does outside itself to obey the Great Commission.
- Ministry is everything the congregation does internally to edify disciples.
- Mortar is everything relating to church property (maintenance, capital expenditures, insurance, and so on).
He challenges congregations to keep their expenditures in mission higher than their expenditures in mortar. By doing this, a congregation avoids making their facilities a hindrance to mission.
We need to ask what we value most in our congregations. If we find something we value equally with our identity as followers of Jesus Christ, we need to repent of that as an idol and either get rid of it or see it only as a tool for God’s mission. We need to see our facilities as an expendable resource for engaging in God’s mission. This means being open to renting, selling, or redesigning our buildings to better provide for the mission God has given us. It also means setting up a budget that gives mission precedence over facilities.
This article is excerpted from Go! How to Become a Great Commission Church (General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, 2017) by Mark Teasdale. Used by permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.
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