Sometimes a congregation that has declined in numbers and morale comes to believe that their situation could be reversed if they build or buy a church building.
Some may begin to think, with all the best intentions, "If we buy our own building, we could do so many things we cannot do now!" Like the theme of the movie Field of Dreams, some may begin to believe: "If you build it, they will come!"
But experienced pastors know that a building program is not a ready solution for a church's attendance problems. In fact, it is frequently a death knell for a congregation, generating conflict, hostility, frustration and morale problems the members never anticipated.
Some of our congregations, frustrated after a 60-year history of virtually no local church buildings in our denomination, now feel that owning a building may provide just the answer they've been looking for. Some of our churches may indeed be at the right point in their growth and maturity as a congregation where a building is the right and appropriate step for them to take. Before a congregation is prepared for a church building, several important factors need to be carefully considered.
1. A church must realize that owning a building is not an end in itself. The explosive growth of Christianity in the first and second centuries took place without church buildings.
Focus was on the joy of the gospel, and it was spread by the testimony of believers through personal relationships, not by attracting people to an impressive hall.
Members met in homes and temporary facilities for worship, prayer, instruction, study and praise.
2. We can't solve non-building problems with a building. Lack of growth in a congregation can be due to many factors, but lack of a permanent building is not one of them.
Sometimes the reason for lack of growth is that God is simply not currently calling people in that particular area.
Most of the time, however, the reason is that the congregation is still working through its own internal problems and is not ready for an influx of new converts.
Evangelism has often been called overflow. In other words, evangelism, or reaching out with the gospel, results from being so filled with the love of God and the joy of his salvation that it simply bubbles out, or overflows from us.
It is no surprise that this usually can't happen during a time when we are still struggling to cope with past hurts, relationship problems and a sense of loss. While we are in a grieving process, it is difficult to reach out to others. During such a time, we are still in need of nurture ourselves.
It is also no surprise that effective evangelism can't happen if we are not on fire for Jesus Christ in our private lives. When most of the congregation is still lukewarm, the first need is prayer for the spiritual renewal of the congregation.
Spiritual renewal won't happen by acquiring a permanent building. It will happen through prayer and proclamation of the Word of God.
3. Despite the best intentions, people will not improve their giving habits just to support a building. Some pastors and churches come to believe that if the church buys or builds a new building, the members will increase their giving to support the added costs of the mortgage, insurance, maintenance and repairs. But that doesn't happen.
The initial spark of good intentions cannot withstand the steady rain of reality. Unless a building is paid off or nearly so before members actually begin using it, meeting mortgage payments will be a continual albatross around the congregation's neck, creating a constant source of requests for giving until the building is either paid off or sold, which may be decades.
4. Buildings are not the primary reason new people are attracted to a church, nor the primary reason people choose to stay.
People today are attracted to a church by what that church does for them and their children. Where it meets is not nearly as important as how much it cares and how much it provides for the needs of the members.
It's true that a building can play a part in meeting needs. But the heart of love and commitment to Christ of the congregation is infinitely more important.
Several large, successful churches today grew into thousands of members before finally investing in permanent facilities. That's because who they were as the people of God was more important than where they met.
For example, Rick Warren writes this: "I'm often asked, `How big can a church grow without a building?' The answer is, `I don't know!' Saddleback met for 15 years and grew to 10,000 attenders without their own building, so I know it's possible to grow to at least 10,000! A building, or lack of a building, should never be allowed to become a barrier to a wave of growth. People are far more important than property (The Purpose-Driven Church, page 46).
5. Consider the following point made by church growth expert Lyle Schaller in an article in the Winter 1997 issue of Leadership called "You Can't Believe Everything You Hear About Church Growth": "The typical congregational planning process is overloaded with wishes, dreams, and myths, which undermine effective decision-making."
Some common examples illustrate this syndrome:
Myth 1: If we build it, they will come.
"We now average about 400 at worship, and we have designed a comprehensive strategy to double our membership over the next six years.
"The recent and projected population growth in this community suggests that is a realistic goal. Therefore we have launched a capital funds campaign to double the size of our physical facilities. We're convinced if we build it, they will come."
Reality: That slogan was a great story line for a wonderful baseball movie, but for churches, it overlooks two crucial variables: The initial focus on responding to rapid population growth should be on expanding the ministry and raising the quality of what is offered. That usually means that adding program staff should come before constructing additional facilities.
A second issue is the assimilation of newcomers. Unless the process for the assimilation of new people is improved and expanded, a 50 percent increase in membership may produce only a 10 percent increase in worship attendance.
As Schaller points out, a congregation must be ready to receive and assimilate new members before it can properly bring them in. Otherwise, new converts will simply become disillusioned and either drop out or move on to another church that is prepared to receive and spiritually nurture new converts.
What does all this mean? It means that owning a building should be way down the list of priorities for a congregation.
The first order of spiritual business is to begin the discipling process—building effective disciples of Jesus Christ from the members God has already placed in the congregation. Effective disciples become effective disciplers. And a congregation of effective disciplers is ready to receive and assimilate new converts.
That's why your development of small groups, leadership training classes, Christian education classes and service goals, all bathed in private and corporate prayer, should be far higher priorities than a permanent building.
Key ingredients of a congregation that is ready to evangelize, receive and assimilate new converts include such basics as these:
* Compelling, committed personal and corporate Bible study.
* Devoted, faithful personal and corporate prayer.
* Meaningful, Spirit-guided personal and corporate service inside and outside the church.
Until these are in place, and until the congregation has carefully a) studied the demographics and needs of its community, b) discovered and developed the spiritual gifts of its members, and c) prayerfully developed a plan for 1) serving that community with the gifts God has provided and 2) for assimilating new converts into the active life of the church, it is not ready to consider ownership of a permanent facility.
In other words, only when a congregation is already successfully fulfilling its reason for existence without owning a building, is it ready to evaluate whether ownership of a permanent facility is part of God's will for its future.
Owning a building isn't the purpose of the church. But the time may come in a congregation's life when owning a building fits appropriately into the true purpose of the church, not as an end in itself, but as a clear enhancement of what God is already doing in that congregation.
A building will not make kingdom work happen, and until kingdom work is happening, a building will be a curse, not a blessing.
I strongly urge every pastor and elder to read When Not to Build, by Ray Bowman (Baker Books, 1992).
I believe that ownership of local church buildings will be part of our future as a denomination. But we need to proceed wisely and in accord with God's call, learning from the mistakes of others, so that our buildings can truly be blessings.