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Rethinking Church Buildings

There was a time when buildings defined the church.  In fact, just about twenty years ago, this was normal.  The church I attended as a child was identifiable by the fact that it had a nice gym, including its own bowling alley. 

Over the last few years, things have changed.  North America has experienced a church planting movement, and many people now consider themselves missional thinkers.  Churches are found in schools, bars, warehouses, and every other imaginable location.  As a result, we are now quick to clarify that we are the church.  The building is simply a gathering place. 

As a church planter, I have been quick to speak against ornate, expensive church buildings.  Maybe that is because I have never had the money to spend on ornate buildings.  Ideally, I like to think that it is because I would rather allocate our resources to ministries instead of structures.  Regardless, I have been a long-standing proponent of rethinking our building fund expenses. 

Several of my pastor friends are on the other side of the fence.  They lead relatively large churches with continually expanding facilities.  I have watched the walls going up.  I have taken the hard-hat tours.  I have heard about the money debates.  I have whispered to friends that I wish those large churches would not spend so much on their own possessions.

But today, God humbled me.  As I was reading Haggai, I realized that although these edifices are just wood and stone, God cares about them.  Even though we are the church, the place of worship still seems to matter to God.  Haggai resounds with this message.  In it, God says:

Take a good, hard look at your life.  Think it over.  You have spent a lot of money, but you haven’t much to show for it.  You keep filling your plates, but you never get filled up.  You keep drinking and drinking and drinking, but you’re always thirsty.  (Haggai 1:5-6 MSG)

After telling the people of Israel that He is tired of their spending money on themselves, God goes on to say:

Here’s what I want you to do: Climb into the hills and cut some timber.  Bring it down and rebuild the Temple.  Do it just for me.  Honor me.  (Haggai 1:8 MSG)

I don’t know about you, but that makes me stop and think.  I’ve been a huge proponent of using God’s resources on people (our church even gave away all of our tithes and offerings last year to help the hurting of our city).  But this pronouncement in Haggai made me realize that while God wants us to live daily as the church, He also cares about His gathering places – His structures for worship. 

After all, He set out every detail for the tabernacle.  Moses never had to wonder about God’s desires.  And after Solomon finished building the immoveable tabernacle -the Lord’s “cloud filled The Temple of God.  The priests couldn’t carry out their priestly duties because of the cloud—the glory of God filled The Temple of God.”  (1 Kings 8:10-11 MSG)

Maybe the church planters and missional thinkers among us should not be so quick to throw stones at our church structures.  Before I give the “stink eye” to a church community down the road, maybe I should consider that God occasionally ordains His gathering places.

On the other hand, those who build elaborate buildings should also heed the instruction from Haggai.  God never asked for a building that would attract the masses.  He never proposed a structure to gain a greater market share.  He was not trying to build a contemporary facility for the sake of instruments and lighting.  Instead, He implied, “Do this with only one motivation: to honor Me.”

Apparently, the issue of church structures is not as cut-and-dried as I thought.  I am still glad that our buildings do not define our churches any longer.  Instead, I hope that we are defined by our willingness to listen to God’s direction and our passion to honor Him with all of our resources.

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John Richardson has been a pastor and church planter for over ten years. His passion is to see the church more accurately reflect the heart and ministry of Jesus. His first book, Giving Away the Collection Plate is available at http://www.tatepublishing.com. John and his wife, J.D., have three daughters and live in Mississippi. You can find him on twitter: @RichardsonJohnD.