This past weekend it was garage sale time in our neighborhood and the Peeples family sold some stuff in the driveway-mainly at the instigation of the boys who quickly lost interest once the temperature rose. Among the shoppers were a group of people who were very chatty, so chatty that I figured something was up. I was right. They are members of a new church that meets in our local elementary school and they were out "shopping" the garage sales and meeting the neighbors to invite them to church. I quickly played the minister card before the evangelism went too far, but I still had to assure them I was "saved." Although their theology isn't a match with my own, I did find out something interesting about their church--they are planning on never buying a church building.
Their philosophy of church involves not buying a building but rather renting one and using the money, time and energy that would be spent on a building to do ministry and evangelism. I have to admit that I see a lot of wisdom in this way of thinking. (Don't worry I'm not advocating that we sell our church building.) I've spent a lot of time in meetings where church folks agonized over how to pay for building repairs and maintenance. I've done a capital campaign for major capital expenses. I've mediated battles over renovations. I've watched missions budgets shrink in order to pay for repairs. I've watched people devote themselves to church buildings in a way they would never devote themselves to serving the poor or worshiping God. I am grateful for the servants of the churches I have served and the one I currently serve who do the hard grunt work around the church building, but at times I've seen care for the building turn into an end in itself or even an idol to be worshiped.
A church building is a tool for ministry and nothing else. It can provide a sense of place and belonging that enables one to experience God's presence. (Indeed, I've heard from members of new churches without buildings that they struggle with a sense of rootlessness.) It can be a place to worship God with one's faith community. It can be a place to celebrate and to mourn. It can be a place to send out servants into the world to share God's love with those dying for it. Yet, because of our vocabulary it can also be confused with the church itself. We call the building "church," but the church is the community not a building. A church building is not an end but a means.
Our church building located at 205 West 65th Street in the Armor Hills neighborhood of Brookside in Kansas City, MO happens to be a particularly beautiful one. It's placement in the neighborhood and on its property along with its federal architecture make it a pleasure to behold. Routinely we have visitors who remark that they always wanted to visit the church because the building was so attractive and one day they finally walked in the door. It is a great asset to have an attractive church building, because many church buildings are god-awful ugly examples of the worst in 1950's and 1960's architecture.
In my nine months as minister of our church, I have sensed regular anxiety about the maintenance our building and how we will pay for the work. (Most of this anxiety is borne by the dedicated few who are willing to work on church finances and the building.) We do have a lot of maintenance to do and it adds up financially, but I can assure you that things could be so much worse. We have no major structural issues and what we do need to work on falls under the category of owning a building--stuff wears out and falls apart, so you have to fix stuff. Our church has not fallen for the temptation to allow our building anxieties to overcome our devotion to ministry--at least not yet. That temptation remains, however, for our church and every church that owns a building.
This Sunday our church will do something new. After an abbreviated worship service (at the regular time) and a quick lunch we will head downtown to United Inner City Services for a few hours to help their service to their community. UICS serves its high-need community by providing childcare, a clothes closet, a food pantry, literacy classes and more. We will do some work that their staff simply does not have time to do--touch up painting throughout the building, gardening, building new shelves for the food pantry, sorting child clothes in the clothes closet and sharing information about UICS with the neighborhood.
We are leaving the church building for many reasons. We will serve a worthy organization with which we already have a connection (church members have served on their board and we provide Christmas presents to the children in their preschool). We will carry out our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ to care for those who do not share the same blessings we enjoy. We will remember that the Christian life by its very nature involves service to others not merely our own self-interest. We will rediscover that the church is not a building but rather a community of people who seek to live as followers of Jesus.
Grace and Peace,