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Jesus Creed

Church is not a building, but…

MonteriggioniChurch.jpgIndeed, a church is not a building, but a church being “more” than the building may not tell the whole story. What is ministry like without a building? Dan Kimball, in a recent article explores this question. I clip a few of his lines and ask you to respond:

If you had asked me eight years ago what I thought about church buildings, I would have said, “Who needs a building? The early church didn’t have buildings, and we don’t need them either!” But I was wrong.


My anti-building phase was a reaction to having seen so much money spent on church facilities, often for non-essential, luxury items. I was also reacting to a philosophy of ministry that treated church buildings like Disneyland; a place consumers gather for entertainment. But these abuses had caused me to unfairly dismiss the potential blessing of buildings as well.

Just yesterday I was in The Abbey and saw about 20 people, not part of our congregation, studying and hanging out. (During finals week I counted 90 students packed into the place.) While there I talked to a brand new Christian who has been coming to our gatherings. He found out about our church from a Buddhist friend. His friend loves coming to The Abbey and recommended our church because he trusted us.


We’ve also used our building to serve our community in times of crisis. When wildfires forced nearby residents to flee their homes, our building became an overnight refuge for those without a place to stay.

These missional opportunities would not be possible without a building….

So, I have recanted from my earlier belief that buildings drain resources and create consumer Christians. I was wrong. Now I see them as missionary centers to impact lives for the gospel.

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Steve S

posted December 11, 2009 at 7:56 am

It is merely a resource, but usually it is not treated as a resource, but rather an end in itself…
I am convinced that most congregations would actually begin to look more like a real church if they were forced to give up their facilities…

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posted December 11, 2009 at 8:40 am

Hit the nail on the head. I think we need to reclaim “church buildings” not as places where people consume religious experiences, but rather as centers of and catalysts for community, local mission, and spiritual formation creating deep impact on neighborhoods/cities, not unlike the early Jesuit missions to the U.S.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 8:53 am

If we “love people, use things,” a church building is fine, if we “love things, use people,” a church building can be a problem. Buildings can never be the first priority. From David and Solomon to Francis of Assisi, many have mistaken “build my tabernacle/church” (my people) for “build my building.”
I love a beautiful church. I love the sense of accumulated prayer, the layers of silence … I think traditional church architecture can be lovely … I also wonder how much of this “love” is sentimental and how much I project a fantasy of what I want the church to be on to a pretty or majestic building.
I know Kimball’s comments are simply snippets but they sound a bit like rationalizing and defensiveness to me. Of course, he did, apparently, speak out against church building, so perhaps he does feel a need to defend himself now … but I’m not entirely buying it. Does he ever acknowledge that many, many church buildings are not “missional centers” but comfortable clubs for the members?

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posted December 11, 2009 at 9:04 am

This is an interesting article by Kimball.
What are the options to a building?
While a church can misuse a facility, fail in stewardship, fail in mission – I find the lack of “place” is a serious limitation to any missional church.
The danger of a club mentality in a home based movement is even worse – because there is no space for a non-threatening welcome, and no space for the kind of mission that Dan discusses.
Anyone who has operated a church in a trailer – setting up and taking down weekly to use a community space – will point out the flaws in this approach as well.
And Diane – I read no hint of defensiveness in Dan’s article, merely a thoughtful discussion from the vantage point of a new and broader perspective.

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Don Heatley

posted December 11, 2009 at 9:09 am

Our church, Vision, began in a small community center 8 yrs ago. We thought that not being a church building would remove a barrier to the “unchurched”, but in general that was not an issue. Not having a building to call home presented several challenges. Since new churches are rare here in NY, it was difficult for the community to think of us as a “real” church. Some thought of us a cult, mostly because we didn’t have a building.
Setting up and tearing down every Sunday was a huge drain in ministry, even though it provided a convivial atmosphere. Creating and maintaining other ministries or worship experiences also proved difficult. We literally had no other options. Our school system had a policy of not allowing churches to use school facilities and there were no spaces available to rent anywhere that held more than 100 people.
This year, through the unlikely workings of God, we moved into a closed mainline church that we are considering purchasing. The building was built in 1868 and is probably the furthest thing from what we pictured when we began – yet it is the perfect place for us right now. We are able to be more missional and offer more compassion to our community since we have a base from which to operate. Sure there are challenges, but so far it’s been a “six of one half dozen of the other” compared to when we were at the community center.
Our situation may be a little different. Not having a permanent home for so many years, it will take quite a while before we become a congregation that’s “all about the building” which I hope we never will at all. As long as a church keeps its outward focus, whether its in its own or building or not is secondary. We have to be open to how God leads us and how we evolve. So I’m not in the “buildings are bad” or “buildings are good camps”. I’ve experienced challenges and blessing in both and focusing on the mission makes either option viable.

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Keith Foisy

posted December 11, 2009 at 9:16 am

i think the building can definately be an asset, so long as we call it a building, and so long as we use it to its full potential. Then it is worth putting the resources into. Using it only 2-4hrs a week is a tragic waste of resources and opportunities. i would love to see our building become a place where people like to go just to hang out. Most churches aren’t that user friendly.

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Jamie Arpin-Ricci

posted December 11, 2009 at 10:24 am

I think part of the challenge we face in respect to buildings is that we keep reproducing (generally speaking) the same kinds of buildings, trying to make them adapt to our shifting ecclesiology, missiology, etc. However, I think if we are able to consider the implications of these dynamics, decide if they need independent buildings and, if so, pursue buildings that are organized around those values, they can be important places. Of course, this is easier said than done.
If we don’t do this, we will find ourselves bound and formed by buildings that move against our deepest convictions and values. Remember what Winston Churchill once said:
?We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.?

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Daniel Ehrman

posted December 11, 2009 at 10:48 am

It is exciting to consider the vision God has given leaders like Kimball to be able to maximize the use of a facility in creative ways to serve the Lord, His people and even as an outpost to the community. In Kimball’s class at Wheaton this spring he presented many ideas about Church facilities. It is interesting to see the evolution of his thoughts and values on buildings.
Kimball seems to have a theology of architecture developing from ascetic to utilitarian to culturally neutral to a strong belief expression to creating symbols in architecture to even creating sacred space. He doesn’t seem to have crossed over into the realm of using architecture of a facility as a means of worship or somehow creating a place where God might abide, but there is definitely an increasing sense of value being placed on the space.
Interesting to note is that this continuum often mirrors or is derived from one’s view of the Lord’s Supper – following the shift from emblems to sacraments to the Eucharist. As one’s view of the bread and wine shifts from strictly symbolic to “special presence” to “over, under and around” to transubstantiation, the importance of the physical space increases exponentially, as the physical space becomes increasingly closer to being God’s very seat on earth.
This often is felt in conjunction with a view towards christian symbols. The continuum is from viewing symbols as theologically offensive or to be avoided, to allowing for a few, to viewing it as a means of creative expression, to seeking out a strong faith expression through art and architectural symbolism.
Beyond just our buildings, it is such a joy to see God take and use the resources we give back to him. God gives vision to church leaders to utilize whatever means they might have, guiding and directing his people to do serve the church and the community.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 11:29 am

I’m stirring the pot so there’s something to talk about …however, the word “recant” sounds defensive to me … why does he have to recant? …maybe I’m channeling the Inquisition … :) I do think all this enthusiasm must be tempered by the realization that buildings often end up owning congregations. And they eventually become emblems of another era … calling something the “Abbey” is so very hip now but in 30 years it will probably be so bell-bottoms and love beads and then there will be the expensive building campaign to make it… whatever is hip in 2040, but the congregation will be aged out and well, you know … my radar is up … but more power to Kimball if he can do good with the building.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 12:24 pm

I’m with Andrew @2. I’ve been exactly in Kimball’s shoes. Where I once was ‘above’ the aspects of a building, over the last decade I have come to see a particular kind of light. No one could constantly reinforce the simple truth that “church” is us and not the property or facility that we meet on or in. But the space we feel blessed to occupy has done much to foster our missional leanings, practice and formation. For instance, our building has allowed us to offer a place for the Lord’s Table and morning prayers every day of the week for the last 8 years — something that would be far more difficult, if not impossible, if it were not for the privilege of this sacred space.
We have created a coffeehouse within our space, and a bookstore, and a city-park-of-sorts, etc., all used in a variety of ways in our neighborhood and community, as we’ve reclaimed this gift as a catalyst for mission.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 12:38 pm

You know, Diane, I’m with you on this one.
As far as my experience. I was a youth minister for nearly 20 years and a preacher for over 10 years. I’m now leading a group that was meeting in a home and now meets in the community room of a section 8 housing complex.
Yes, people think you are a cult. And yes, some people will not come because you’re not in a building. (We can’t even get a 501(c)3 status as a church because we don’t own or rent a building(but we did get it for a “religious organization” go figure).
However, we will never get the people of this apartment complex to go to some church building. And taking the church to where this complex is seems to make more sense at the moment. No, they can’t gather at our neat building and sip coffee and have wonderful hip conversations. Instead, we have to go to them on their own turf. Maybe invite them into our homes for coffee and a meal. Maybe meet at a Starbucks, but most likely a locally owned restaurant that sells coffee cheap.
I don’t condemn buildings–they are really convenient–and I’m discovering just how convenient they were now. But I don’t think I’ll go back…maybe I will one day. But for now, the church is going to the people. If we end up making the mistake of tying our identity with a building, it will be an apartment complex…which, while still not the most accurate, is a lot better than tying it to a religious building.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 12:42 pm

And Terry, I don’t totally disagree with you, either. Either direction you go you have to work at keeping the focus correct: squarely on Jesus and squarely on the mission.

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Ted M. Gossard

posted December 11, 2009 at 3:12 pm

Good. I can see how a building can serve as a missional outlet. Our church has gone through a lot in the past, and talked of abandoning the building with a sizeable debt and problems in the structure such as water seepage. The building was kept and is being used for missional purposes in the community. I like the way Dan and that congregation seemed to work through how they could use the building to live out being the church well in their community.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 10:36 pm

One perspective to consider also is what we allow our buildings to “say” about what we think about God. Many of the buildings in my denomination resemble shopping malls. One would be hard pressed to be moved towards the sacred within their overly-austere and hyper-functional interiors. In comparison, when I was in Paris during my stint in the Marines, I was able to frequently wander into Notre Dame. The overwhelming expansiveness of it suggested that those who constructed it had a very large view of God–that He was glorious and ruled high above us. I wasn’t troubled by the suggestiveness of the architecture. In fact, I found that it added an element of sacredness, awe, and wonder that I had not encountered before.

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Bob Smallman

posted December 12, 2009 at 2:57 pm

As earlier comments demonstrate, there are no absolutes when it comes to buildings. Thirty-seven years ago I planted a church with the idea that “church buildings” were superfluous and maybe even a bar to the non-churched. That congregation, some years after I left, purchased a building — for all kinds of reasons, most of them, I think, good.
Here in northern Wisconsin I soon discovered that if we were really to be considered a part of our community, we needed a “real church” (translation: a building that “looks like a church”). Our traditional looking church building has, in fact, enabled us to reach a lot of lapsed Catholics and Lutherans who — as their own children began to grow up — were looking for something different from what they had grown up in — but in other ways familiar to their childhood experiences.
In addition, we see part of our mission to be opening our building to various community functions (a concert with the high school choir using our organ, a fund raising dinner for the women’s shelter, several Eagle Scout ceremonies, community group business meetings, etc., etc.). While we don’t believe in “architectural evangelism,” we do hope that people in the community will find our building a welcoming place and perhaps will come back on a Sunday morning.

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Scot McKnight

posted December 12, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Bob, appreciate your comments. I think there’s something to connecting the need for embodiment to church buildings, and there’s also the aesthetic dimension that craves for expression. I’m for a church building …
The argument that the early church met in homes does nothing for me. The homes they met in, more often than not, were villas and some could have been quite large. Here I’m thinking of the research distilled by Gerd Theissen in his book on the Corinthians.

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Josh Lawson

posted December 12, 2009 at 9:14 pm

I don’t know. I’m definitely not “against” having a building. If you have a group of people and they want to rent a building, buy a building, or build a building, that’s up to them. As Dan says, there’s a lot of things you can do with a building. But for three centuries the church carried on her work just fine without them. Not that they didn’t have buildings per se, but that the only buildings they had were their homes. So I can go either way on this one, though the Puritan in me leans away from special buildings. :)

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