A Theological Framework for Buildings and Renovations
Editor’s Note: The following is a document produced by the elders of Del Ray Baptist Church in Alexandria, VA to instruct their congregation on how to think about upcoming building renovations.
As we continue in a season of hiring architects and contractors to evaluate our facilities and recommend steps toward building and renovating facilities, it seems prudent to discuss and develop our theology of buildings. The goal as elders will be to wisely avoid two ditches:
- Glorying in our buildings (a form of materialism) — where we measure our church health by buildings, or measure the Lord’s faithfulness to us by the quality of our buildings, or boast in our buildings before others, or find encouragement for gospel ministry from our buildings.
- Despising our buildings (a form of asceticism) — where we measure our spiritual maturity by how happy we are with dilapidated buildings, or boast in our old facilities, or equate physical renovations and construction with worldliness, or wrongly accuse God of judging churches who improve their facilities.
Along with avoiding these ditches, we also want to develop a positive, biblical understanding of physical resources in fulfilling our calling as ambassadors for Christ and ministers of the gospel. We don’t want to be dependent upon buildings, but we do want to utilize every resource the Lord provides in honoring His name and bearing fruit as His church. We want to be good stewards. We want to be a church who walks wisely and faithfully through building projects. We want to understand from Scripture a theology of church property, facilities, and physical resources.
I. A THEOLOGY OF BUILDINGS
1. The significance of physical places in Scripture
The physical world was created good, not evil, and can been used for good or evil. Even more, the Lord has used physical places in the created world for significant purposes.
- Pillars and altars (Genesis 12:7-8; 22:9-14; 28:10-22; 2 Samuel 24:18-25)
- The tabernacle (Exodus 24:15-25:9; 40:34-38)
- The Promised Land (Exodus 32:11-14; Joshua 4:1-7)
- Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1:8-10)
- The temple (1 Kings 8:1-11; 2 Chronicles 7:11-12)
- Jesus Christ taking on human flesh (John 1:1-14)
- Our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:17-20)
- The church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
- The new heavens, new earth, new Jerusalem (Revelation 21)
There is clearly a shift in emphasis on physical places and buildings as Scripture progresses. The Old Testament is full of physical shadows and types that were meant to prepare the people of God for the coming of their Messiah. The entire sacrificial system was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The physical temple in Jerusalem gave way to the church-as-temple-of-God under the new covenant. He dwells in a people, not a building. The conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well signaled a marked transition.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21–24)
Of course, the Lord is not done with physical spaces. There will be a new heavens and earth, a new Jerusalem, and all kinds of glorious physical spaces in the eternal state, and we’re meant to be excited about it. Though the sacrificial system and physical temple of the OT was fulfilled in Christ and His church, they also represented and reflected the reality of heaven in various ways. Moses was to build the Tabernacle to the exact design God provided because it would be a copy of the real thing in heaven.
2. What happens in the physical place is the essential thing
Consider God’s words through the prophet Haggai:
In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet: “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to all the remnant of the people, and say, ‘Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?
Yet now be strong, O Zerubbabel, declares the Lord. Be strong, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Be strong, all you people of the land, declares the Lord. Work, for I am with you, declares the Lord of hosts, according to the covenant that I made with you when you came out of Egypt. My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land.
And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’” (Haggai 2:1-9)
God uses physical buildings. The glory of a building does not rest in the size, style, and opulence, but in how God uses it to accomplish His purposes. In the days of Zerubbabel, some people mourned, and some rejoiced at the sight of the new temple, mostly for the wrong reasons. The Lord wanted them to grasp what mattered most. Jesus Christ would someday step into that very temple. The Son of God would take on flesh, enter Jerusalem, and bring peace.
Of course, even the new temple would not last. Jesus Christ announced its destruction: “Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:1-2). The temple served a purpose, and then it was destroyed. Another temple was built, the body of Christ, the Church, filled with the Spirit of God.
3. The church is a people, not a building
Union with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who unites us to Christ, is one of the glorious truths of the gospel (Galatians 2:20; 1 Corinthians 6:17-20). Even more, we are joined to one another because of our union with Christ. The church, therefore, is composed of people. We are the stones of a new temple for the glory of God, and Christ is the cornerstone:
As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:4-5).
4. Our primary work is spiritual, not physical
The Lord Jesus Christ commissioned us to make disciples, not buildings: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
The apostle Paul purposely came to the Corinthians, not with the wisdom of the world, but with Christ and Him crucified, “in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power,” through lives transformed by the gospel. It makes sense to extend his reasoning to buildings. We preach Christ and view lives transformed by the power of God through the gospel to be evidence of fruitfulness, not buildings.
5. Buildings are helpful, not essential
It is wise to conclude that we do not need church buildings. If a day arises when we lose our church property, the church will remain and, by God’s grace, thrive. The gates of Hades shall not prevail against the church of Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18).
At the same time, church buildings are helpful. If the Lord allows, we are wise to take advantage of every resource we receive in the ministry of the gospel and the edification of His church. Though we could say much about the wise use and purpose of church property and buildings, the following section will highlight a few ways our buildings help us fulfill the mission to which Christ calls us.
II. OUR PURPOSE FOR BUILDINGS
As previously stated, church property and buildings are not essential, but they can be helpful. They are not evil, though they can be built and used for evil reasons. They can be distracting and tedious, but they can also be useful in obeying the Great Commission.
Behind our theology of church property is our theology of all created things. They are gifts from the Lord that may be used rightly or wrongly, for the glory of Christ or the glory of mankind. We probably need continual reminders about the purpose of physical things, which are to be received humbly and with genuine thanksgiving. They should be used in service to Christ and His kingdom, for the ministry of the gospel, for the love of people. If we keep viewing them as mere means by which we fulfill our mission as a church, then we will probably stay on a good track.
1. A place to assemble in the worship of our great God, minimizing distractions where possible (snow and rain; noise; intense cold or heat, etc.)
Though we could break into 20 small churches meeting in houses, overseen by 20 separate groups of elders, our building provides the opportunity to meet as one local church bearing one witness to the surrounding world led by one group of elders.
A building also helps us focus the resources of the Lord with precision and wisdom. When we gather in one place at one time, the church can be built up through the ministry of one pastor preaching one sermon, through the ministry of one music team leading the singing.
A building allows us to worship God together. It allows us to break bread together at one time. It protects our bodies from rain and snow in order to hear the preaching of the Word, pray as a congregation, and worship the Lord with minimal distractions. It provides a space for members of our congregation to encourage, strengthen, serve, and love one another.
2. A place to equip the saints for the work of ministry (classrooms; fellowship halls; children’s ministry rooms)
For the most part our paid pastors and staff have an office at the church, which is very helpful for preparing sermons, counseling members, and teaching bible studies. When Paul preached at Ephesus, he was not received in the synagogue, but he was able to “reason daily in the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9). For approximately two years Paul preached, taught, and made disciples in that building. I’m sure he was very thankful for it.
3. A place to help us make disciples of Jesus Christ as well as train future pastors and leaders in the work
The church property and buildings allow us to overcome certain obstacles to ministry, like meeting space constraints, parking constraints, cost of utilities, etc. For example, if housing is a significant obstacle for future pastors and church leaders to receive training at DRBC, and the Lord provides means to remove those obstacles, then it may be wise to do so.
4. A visible mark of the church
Strangers can walk in. People driving by can see and inquire. People can see and hear the church being the church together because we have a place to gather in one accord. Though the church is a people, not a building, these people show themselves as the church when they gather together in worship, service, and care for one another.
The Lord uses our unity, Christ-centered lives, and proclamation of the gospel to bear witness to the world. It helps, at the same time, when we have a place where people can walk in from the street and actually witness our unity, Christ-centered lives, and gospel proclamation. Again, a building is not essential, but it is helpful to this end.
We encourage you to take time in the days ahead to read some of the passages in this document and pray for the Lord to give us wisdom in developing and renovating our buildings. If other passages of Scripture come to mind that might be helpful as we think about buildings and renovation, then please send those passages and ideas to the elders.