Are Buildings Essential to Healthy Churches?
Are buildings necessary to building healthy churches? Does lacking a building put a church at a disadvantage? Does being mobile hinder disciple-making and the spread of the gospel?
THE DILEMMA EVERY PASTOR FACES
Every pastor I know whose church doesn’t have a building wants one—and for good reason. Setting up and tearing down every Sunday is exciting, but only for a season. Recruiting faithful volunteers to arrive early and leave late—every week—is a challenge. Navigating relationships with landlords is often complex. Losing your space at the last minute is more common than you’d think. Finding a new space before the end of your current lease is time-consuming. This doesn’t even include locating space for offices, classes, and mid-size gatherings throughout the week. This pastor is tempted to think, “If only we had a building . . .”
At the same time, almost every pastor I know whose church has a building, well, they want a slightly different one. After all, buildings can be too big or too small. The sanctuary may be just right, while there aren’t enough classrooms. Or the kids’ space may be ideal, but there aren’t enough offices. Buildings are expensive to purchase, remodel, and maintain. Designated staff is typically required for facility management. The boiler always needs repair. (Why is it always the boiler?) Parking is usually a challenge, especially in urban contexts. This pastor is tempted to think, “If only our building had . . .”
PLACES AS STAGES
It’s fascinating to survey the Scriptures and note the places where God tends to do redemptive work. Even a cursory reading reveals that God uses people in all kinds of places, from the everyday to the unexpected—from gardens, fields, arks, and prison cells to deserts, whale bellies, shipwrecks, and stables. But what’s striking about this is that the places are always secondary. The places themselves are not the drama. They’re merely the stages on which God’s redemptive drama unfolds in ways big and small through the lives of his people.
So I wonder: why would we think it would be any different today? For those of us who may be tempted to think that God’s work is somehow restricted or hindered by our space, we need this reminder.
THE PLACES OF DOWNTOWN CORNERSTONE
Our church gathers in the heart of downtown Seattle. We recently turned ten years old, and over the course of our shared life we’ve met in almost every conceivable type of space.
From birth to year four, our Sunday gatherings took place in a basement-level antique shop, then an office building foyer, and then a movie theater (in fact, we met in five different theaters in the same complex over three years). We used conference rooms for classes. We offered pre-marital counseling in living rooms. We had prayer nights in a local community center. Our small groups met in condos, on rooftops, and throughout parks. Early morning discipleship groups met in cafes. Our staff worked out of a shoe-box sized office that had been donated to us.
And yet, Jesus used these scattered, everyday places as stages on which to spread the gospel, save sinners, and sanctify his people.
From year four to the present, we’ve leased a former dance club. This was incredibly significant for our fledgling church. It gave us a more permanent presence in our community. There was no more set-up and tear-down. We could consolidate all our ministry efforts to one central location.
But . . . our sanctuary is too small, our office space is too limited, and we’re kept from making any improvements by our landlords. Our family entrance is literally in an alley. We’re glad to be in the most densely populated neighborhood downtown. But this area also attracts graffiti, urine, and drug deals. Oh, and did I mention it has no windows?
And yet Jesus is using this imperfect building as a stage on which to spread the gospel, save sinners, and sanctify his people.
From the beginning, we prayed, searched, and saved for a permanent building. We continually found ourselves coming up short. Some buildings were too small. Others were too expensive. Most were located outside the city center. Still others were purchased in cash by developers before the ink was dry on our own offer. But by God’s grace, after ten years of searching and saving, we purchased a building in December 2020. While this is a huge piece of evidence of God’s grace toward us, we now find ourselves leading a capital campaign and a building project. Meanwhile, amid a once-in-a-century pandemic, the cost of raw materials has soared.
Buildings are a gift, but they too have their challenges.
THE ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES OF NOT HAVING A BUILDING
Here are a few advantages of being mobile:
- Your church isn’t tied down to a particular place.
- There’s no financial burden of a mortgage.
- As your church grows, you can simply move to a larger space.
- Generally, your landlord is responsible for facility repairs.
But there are, of course, some disadvantages:
- Your experience will often be determined by your landlord.
- Set up and tear down requires significant energy and volunteer capital.
- You will often be thinking about where to meet next.
- Lacking a permanent space can communicate a lack of rootedness to the community.
THE ADVANTAGES/DISADVANTAGES OF HAVING A BUILDING
Here are a few advantages of owning a building:
- A permanent building communicates stability and presence.
- You no longer need to set up and tear down every week.
- You no longer need to be concerned with lease negotiations, landlords, or finding new spaces.
- Your church is usually easier to find.
- You have more freedom to make facility improvements.
But there are some disadvantages, too:
- Buildings can be expensive and require ongoing repair.
- They often need staff attention.
- If the building is too small, you’ll need to find another space or invest in an expensive renovation.
- If the building is too big, your church may have difficulty supporting it.
- If it’s in a poor location, it may not serve the church well.
So, are buildings essential to building healthy churches? No. Can they be incredibly helpful? Absolutely.
Is God’s work limited by your space? No. Does having a building guarantee more fruitfulness? No. Does a building make all your physical space issues go away? No.
Now here’s the trickiest question: should a church get a building if it can? In most cases, I’d say yes. The benefits outweigh the burdens. Above all, whether we have a building or not, we need to remember that our space is merely one stage on which God’s redemptive drama continues to unfold.