by: Hamilton Smith
April 8th was St. Thomas’ fifth anniversary. This is an exciting milestone. Like all such milestones, it’s a cause for reflecting back to see the multiple ways the Lord has blessed us: conversions, resources, spiritual growth, creating art, and healings to name a few. One in particular, however, really surprised us: the blessing of NOT having our own building.
First, some context. We didn’t (and still don’t) want a traditional church campus. From the beginning, the plan was to have a space that would be used throughout the week by our whole community. It’s to be a place of common and saving grace. We thought the Lord’s blessings would come after we accomplished this. We thought this interim time using houses, neighborhood clubhouses, and public school “cafe-gymna-toriums” would be a means to an end. Looking back, it turned out we were wrong: the blessings not only began immediately but were a major way the Lord made us into His image.
Here are five that surprised us the most:
Less Financial and Administrative Burdens
All churches have an unpredictable income stream. The less costs we have, the better. For the costs we do have, it’s great to have them be low and fixed. This isn’t possible when have your own space. Utility bills fluctuate, unexpected repairs need to be made, cleaning staff needs to be hired, toilet paper bought, and someone needs to be hired to stay on top of all of it. Also, liability insurance premiums are higher (because now you have a place where people can actually get hurt!).
When you rent a space for corporate worship, many costs are eliminated, and many others are lowered and fixed. We rent a public school “cafetorium”. We don’t need flood or property insurance for a building. Our liability insurance is much lower because these buildings are already up to code. Our rent includes utilities, cleaning, and bathroom supplies. Any maintenance issues are quickly dealt with by an email on Monday morning. This eliminates the need for maintenance and administrative staff.
These savings result in more finances for staff and ministry.
Builds Relationships in the Church
Americans are individualists. We are private. We like people, but we also like to keep boundaries. Unfortunately, this doesn’t drastically change when Americans become Christians. We love our new Christian family, but we don’t want them too close.
What’s one way churches try to solve this problem? We create church buildings with “fellowship” spaces. They resemble living rooms with sofas, comfortable chairs, tables, coffee, and even fire places. There are smaller rooms for Bible study and prayer. We can enjoy each other on neutral ground. It’s more intimate than Sunday morning worship, but we don’t have to share too much about ourselves. We can let them see the parts of us we want them to see. When we’re afraid they are starting to learn too much about us, we can run back to our homes.
A Christian life, however, is one that is lived in real intimacy and relationship. We invite people deeply into our lives to know us and vice versa. Not having church buildings facilitates this real fellowship. When you don’t have buildings, you must use homes. It forces Christians to open their homes to each other. The demilitarized zone of the church third space is eliminated. Bible studies, planning meetings, and vestry meetings are held where people live. We can now see what pictures hang on the wall, what books are on the shelves, and what messes other people’s lives are, too. This is real community.
Makes Servant Disciples
Americans are autonomous consumers. We love our freedom so we pay for services. We join health clubs where staff sets up and cleans up. We are always willing to pay more so we can do less. We just want to show up, work out, throw our towel in the basket, and go home. Unfortunately, this also doesn’t drastically change when Americans become Christians. We love to serve, but we don’t really want to do anything that might ask too much of us (like come early, or stay late, or sweat, or get wet). Also, aren’t I already contributing by giving financially?
A church with its own buildings often does little to change (if not perpetuate) this mentality. We treat our financial giving to the church like club dues, and we get everything prepped for us. All we have to do is show up. Staff will handle the set up and clean up.
A Christian, however, is called to be a servant. We are called to have the same humble mind as Christ (Phil. 2) and wash each other’s feet (John 13). A Gospel-shaped disciple should be looking for ways to serve, and a building-less church can be an excellent vehicle to form these types of disciples. One of my favorite things to see on Sunday mornings are our toddlers putting out Bibles on chairs and picking them up after the service. I love to see our kids and teenagers hauling out boxes and cleaning crushed goldfish off the floor. I love to see adults getting rained on while they load up the church trailer. Why? I see Christ in them. In our children I see a new generation of Christians who have no concept of not helping. This is how they experience the cross working out in their lives. No longer are they consumers. They are servants.
Dethrones Building Idolatry
This is a bigger issue than any of us (including me) want to admit. I get attached to buildings. I really get attached to buildings that have been part of my family’s story for years. I really, really get attached to places where I’ve experienced Christ’s love through the Holy Spirit’s power. It’s easy to designate those places as especially “holy” or “sacred”.
This is often the case when people think about their church buildings (especially historic ones). The unspoken assumption for many is God lives and works in those holy spaces, and if we don’t have them, we won’t have Him. This mentality also translates into people confusing investing financially in the building as investing in the Kingdom: “To the Glory of God, and in loving memory of ...”.
One of the benefits of not having church buildings is it helps eradicate this “sacred space” misunderstanding. God is present in every part of his creation; every square inch of the earth is “sacred space.” People have experienced Christ in powerful ways while a larger than life Ursula and The Little Mermaid watch from the cafetorium walls. They’ve been so lost in worship that they didn’t even notice that the stage was still set up for the school Christmas play. Not having church buildings has shown us that God is present every where at every time.
Don’t you need a building to attract new people?
I am really sympathetic to this question. I get where its coming from. It assumes that buildings attract new people. What I learned, however, is that this not true. We live in a culture in which Christianity is no longer the dominate religion. It’s seen, like all other faiths, as a club for like minded people. The church campus is for Christians, the Synagogue is for Jewish people, and the VFW is for veterans. You know, “birds of a feather” and all that.
Think about it this way, would a life-long Christian be tempted to visit a Buddhist temple just because one was built in their town? No. Neither would a Buddhist, secular humanist, or any other non-Christian come to our church just because we had a pretty building.
Surprisingly, we’ve found that not having a building has actually enhanced our ability to share the Gospel with non Christians. Here’s why:
- We are forced to use public recreational spaces for activities, and this helps us “bump into” those who don’t go to Church. We go to a city playground for a “Mom’s Morning Out” because there is no where else for them to go. I have staff meetings in coffee shops because there is no office space. This inevitably leads us to interact with a curious world.When we have buildings, we need to legitimize the cost. We use them all the time for our meetings, events, etc. We don’t go anywhere else. Why would we go to a city park for a “Moms’ morning out” when we’ve already spent money on our church’s playground? The result is that we’ve cloistered ourselves off from the unchurched moms that would be at that city park.
- Renting space from secular institutions provides an opportunity for us to have meaningful interactions with non Christians. We now have the opportunity to show grace, understanding, and forgiveness to an over-burdened school district employee who forgot to tell us they would be rewiring the entire school on Sunday (which we did). We now have the opportunity to build a relationship with the school custodian that eventually leads to sharing the Gospel with him (which we did). We now have the opportunity to change a skeptic’s opinion of the Church as a self-serving organization because we are investing in our local schools (which we did). These wouldn’t have happened if we had our own church buildings.
- We invite non Christian neighbors into our homes instead of into our church. Same idea as reason “2” above, but for non-Christians, but with one important addition. Most unchurched people find church buildings intimidating (in the same way we would feel in a Hindu Temple). To be invited into someone’s home, however, is what normal people do. It’s familiar (and flattering) territory for them.
Well, not so much a caveat as an answer to this question you are probably asking: “Does this mean a Church should get rid of it’s buildings?” No. Buildings are an asset to Gospel ministry if used well. I’m simply pointing out that they aren’t necessary. In fact, it could be argued that they can be a hinderance to growth!
Let’s be really honest. The truth is we want buildings for our own comfort and ease. It's more difficult for us to use a rented space. Unloading a trailer on a rainy, cold Sunday morning is not fun, but neither was Christ’s cross “fun” for him. He did it because He loves us. Isn’t the cross the most unexpected blessing of all?