Church buildings are a polarizing possibility. Some people love buildings. Other people hate them. Having been mobile now for 13 years, most of Coram Deo’s congregation is bullish about the potential of permanent space. But in earlier years, our church had a strong “anti-building” sentiment. And both points of view are always present within any congregation. So when it comes time for a church to pursue property, leaders must lead wisely and strategically, grounded in theological conviction. Here are five cautions I’ve had to learn along the way.
Be careful of half-truths. “The church is a people, not a place.” This phrase has been a mantra of ours for years at Coram Deo. And theologically, it’s downright true (see 1 Peter 2:9, Colossians 1:24). Here’s the problem: by using this mantra over and over, we subtly communicated that place doesn’t matter. And as J.I. Packer puts it: “A half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes an untruth.” So we had to clarify: the church is a people, but that doesn’t mean place is unimportant.
Be careful of simplistic trade-offs. It’s tempting to justify a fundraising campaign with simplistic appeals: “The less we spend on mortgage interest, the more we can spend on church planting and missions.” Motivationally, that’s powerful. But missionally, it’s nonsensical. It reinforces an unbiblical dichotomy: “missions good; real estate bad.” The fact is: we need real estate to do mission. Every church planter I know spends a good portion of their budget on rent – that is, unless they’ve found an established church who owns a building and is willing to generously share it. Pastors need to train God’s people to see property ownership as part of a long-term mission strategy.
Be careful of short-range thinking. “Why spend $10 million on a really beautiful space when we can spend $2 million on a basic and functional one?” (The $10 million and the $2 million are just placeholders here: insert whatever numbers you want). Wise stewardship is good, and sometimes the less expensive option is the better one. But not always. And especially not when we’re thinking about the flourishing of the church and the city two or three generations from now. We Bible-believing Protestants tend to have a poor theology of beauty and a bad habit of trying to do things fast and cheap. There’s obviously an opposite extreme to avoid – ornate, lavish, decadent (St. Peter’s in Rome comes to mind). But it wouldn’t be crazy to aim for something in the middle.
Be careful of “early-church nostalgia.” Critics of building programs tend to idealize the early church, when the church met “from house to house” (Acts 5:42). But again, this is only half the story. The (mega)church in Jerusalem also gathered in the Temple (see Acts 2:41 and 46). And church history shows us that throughout the world, when new churches outgrow homes, they build buildings. The Christian home is crucial to the flourishing of the church – would that every Christian saw their home as a frontline of hospitality, ministry, and mission! And it’s true that the Gentile churches in Acts started out in homes (descriptive). But this does not mean that the church must always meet in homes (prescriptive), nor does it imply that churches may not own property or build buildings.
Be careful of excarnation. “Excarnation” is Thomas Howard’s word for an overly spiritualized view of the world that neglects the implications of the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh and blood. He became material, corporeal, physical. When Christians see building ownership and maintenance as a “less spiritual” use of money than missions or mercy ministry, we are guilty of excarnation. It’s exactly the physicality of a church building – that wall that needs to be painted, that toilet that needs to be repaired, that HVAC unit in the children’s ministry wing that needs maintenance – that most vividly reflects our Christology. Because God became man, Christians care about parking lots and elevators and HVAC units. A good pastor will not let his congregation pit “spiritual” concerns against “less spiritual” ones, but will help them see the entire world as the arena of Christ’s redemptive activity. If you wonder why the Catholics own most of the beautiful church buildings in your city, it’s because they’re less Gnostic than Protestants on this point.
BUILDING A THEOLOGY OF PLACE
During our initial fundraising effort, I wanted the people of Coram Deo to know this pursuit wasn’t driven by sheer pragmatism (“we need some money”), but by a theological vision for ministry in the city. So I spent five weeks during our Sunday morning liturgy framing out a theology of place. These short mini-sermons were 3 minutes in length, but they helped to give our fundraising campaign a broader biblical framework. Here are a few excerpts.
December 4, 2016
During Advent, we remember the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the incarnation reminds us of the importance of PHYSICALITY. Christianity is not an abstract, disembodied religion; rather, it is concerned with the real, the material, the concrete. Because of the incarnation, matter… matters.
One of the early heresies in the ancient church was the heresy of Gnosticism. Gnostics believed that matter was evil. The spiritual was pure and good and real; the physical was corrupt and tainted.
We’re in the midst of a campaign to raise funds with the goal of purchasing a permanent building. And perhaps even in your response to this campaign, there is some latent Gnosticism. A tendency to de-emphasize physical, tangible things like buildings. Buildings aren’t spiritual. Prayer and preaching and worship… these things are spiritual. But not real estate. Why does a church need a building?
Well, a church doesn’t need a building… as we’ve proven for the last 11 years! But if matter matters… then the physical affects the spiritual, and vice versa.
Imagine in your mind for a moment what you feel when you walk into a historic church building. As you enter, you sense: transcendence. Stillness. Beauty. That physical space creates a spiritual response. It is a concrete refutation of Gnosticism.
Now think about walking into this room on a Sunday morning. Not the same effect, right? Not bad; but not necessarily transcendent either.
As Christians who understand the connection between physical and spiritual, we are seeking a building of our own…
December 11, 2016
If you turn on the radio during this Christmas season, you’ll hear songs like “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” This season stirs in us the LONGING FOR HOME. And that longing isn’t just holiday sentimentalism… it’s one of our deepest human aches. It’s the hunger for Eden, the desire to get back to a place where everything is RIGHT.
Now we know that as God’s people, our ultimate HOME is heaven. But knowing that doesn’t erase our longing for an earthly home. Abraham was looking forward a heavenly country… but he still journeyed to the promised land. David said his soul would be satisfied in God alone; but he still longed to build a house for the Lord. Nehemiah trusted in the Lord… but he still rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. It’s because of our heavenly home that our earthly homes have meaning. They are signs to us that remind us of our True and Eternal home.
And so it is good and fitting for us to long for an earthly home for Coram Deo Church. It’s good for us to pray with earnest hope and expectation that God will provide the building we desire. If we place our hope in that building alone, we may be guilty of idolatry. But if we hope for it as an earthly foretaste of our heavenly home, we are in good biblical company. And we can know the Lord welcomes our longing.
So let’s go before the Lord and talk to him about our LONGING FOR HOME. Will you pray with me?
December 18, 2016
At Christmas, we celebrate this fact: God loves broadly by loving specifically. God manifests his love for the world by focusing his love on one couple, Joseph and Mary, in one little town, Bethlehem, on one Holy Night that we’ve sung about for 2000 years since. God loves broadly by loving specifically.
Now: we are to love as God loves. Which is why we love the whole city of Omaha. We want to see the gospel change every zip code and every school and every neighborhood. Not only that, we want to continue planting churches across our region.
But in order to love that broadly, we must first love specifically. We have to narrow our focus in order to broaden it. And one thing that means for us right now is narrowing our focus to pursue a particular piece of real estate. A PLACE from which we can minister to the city at large.
And so, we’re in the midst of this campaign to raise funds so that we can purchase a church building…