Mortgaging the mission of God?

Riverside holds Sonrise, a Bible school camp, at a local elementary school.

by Brian Clark

“Why are you against buildings for churches?”

The caller and the question  caught  me by surprise.  She was asking me to lead a workshop for her presbytery  and she had heard  that  I was against churches owning buildings. I am no more against buildings then I am against  playing basketball. It is simply that  at 5’7″ and with no vertical leap and little speed, basketball just isn’t my sport. The creator  did not make me to rebound.

What did the creator  form you to accomplish?  That is the real building question  for any community God is behind. Whether the faith community is 1-year-old or has a 200-year history, the building must fit the purpose of that community today. It becomes problematic when the facility begins to dictate the mission rather than serve the mission.

Riverside holds Sonrise, a Bible school camp, at a local elementary school.
Riverside holds Sonrise, a Bible school camp, at a local elementary school.

Who is the Lord of the church? What is the church? Is the church a building or do we really believe it is a people? I realize we all have been trained to say that the church is a community with a mission, but what do our actions and decisions as leaders of the church say? A building too often has become the tail that wags the dog. Buildings and land are what we fight over, what we invest in, what we cherish. Last Saturday I had coffee with a new pastor and she shared how her community has lost its mission since they built a building. Now the building drives their every decision; it owns them. I have heard from many pastors who serve great existing communities of faith how their building is absorbing more and more of their mission. We have all experienced faithful members who are more concerned about keeping the facility of their ancestors intact over passing on the faith that was passed on to them by those who worshipped in that building.

Do we really believe that it is OK to wait on the Lord to provide before a new community builds – even if that waiting is 40 years? For an existing community, does the building own the church or does the church own the building? Buildings should be the catalysts that help us discern and discuss our true goals and mission. They should be tools that allow leaders to teach lessons about God’s timing and provision. Could we more creatively practice justice and righteousness for our communities if a smaller percentage of our budgets went towards a facility? Our consumer culture screams, “Build it or maintain it, don’t worry about the cost!” If we lose our souls, or at least the soul of the mission, for a building then what profit is that? When a facility becomes what we talk about, what we work to support, then how can we say we are doing God’s work?

God opens and shuts doors. God provides, but so few of us working in the church really believe that. We want it and we want it now, especially the stuff we can own, touch and see. Why is so much of our conflict about buildings and property? We need to admit that we are greatly impacted by our consumer culture and we love things, including facilities. If we can’t walk away from it for the sake of the mission of God, it is an idol. I have coveted more than a few buildings but in my context and, so far, it has not been the right time to own. I thank God for good leaders around me who have kept me from following my many temptations to sacrifice the mission for something I can purchase. As a pastor in a community that has a hard time saying “no” to ourselves and to the stuff we buy, I believe it is even more important to our faith community’s witness to wait until we can afford a building before we try to own one. I am not against buildings; they are a tool of the mission, but they are not the mission. I am against mortgaging the mission of God on a building. Our mantra has been, “We would rather have the youth group over the youth room.”

IMG_1988The community I serve will be 18-years-old this year and we have never owned a building. We have worshipped in an elementary school, a high school and now lease a small part of a building in an office park. It is the equivalent of a three-bedroom, one-bath ranch house for a family of six. There is a lot of sharing, but it works. Due to an amazing gift of land that we recently sold, we have some money in the bank and we are looking for a facility to purchase.

There are a number of concepts we have learned by not owning a building that must guide us in the future. I think they are good concepts for any new or existing church community. First, we need to remember we do not need a building to be the church. That is a very freeing idea. It also reminds us that even if we have a facility, it cannot be where we do our entire ministry and still be true to the mission God has given us. There is always the huge command to “go” that is foundational to the mission of God and we need to be out in the community rather than hiding in our building.

Second, we need a space for us to gather, but if we are going to fulfill our mission our greater need is to have a space that adds benefit to those who are not a part of any community of faith. Instead of trying to create a facility that draws people to our programs, we need to continually adapt our facility to be adding value to our neighbors.

Third, we need to resist consumerism and be willing to say “no” to facilities that will redirect resources from our mission. We need to protect both human and financial resources for the sake of the mission. We need to purchase what we can afford now – not what we hope we can afford in the future. Those who already have a facility must keep it only if they develop a plan that provides enough income to allow them to afford their facility now.

There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to church buildings. Every local congregation is in a unique context with a unique way to live out the mission of God in that context. Any church building needs to be an intentional tool of that unique mission.

BRIAN CLARK is organizing pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church and has a passion for church planting. He is involved in strategy for new church development in the PC(USA), heads the NCD Coaching initiative, is involved in writing the church planting resources developed by the Office of Church Growth, and has fostered Riverside’s involvement in 4 new churches (including one in Kenya).