The Benefits of Having a Building
Today, the Dubai skyline offers an impressive row of towering skyscrapers, world-class hotels, and the world’s tallest building. On the south side of the city sits our humble church home.
While unimpressive by architectural standards, this church building is priceless. It’s the only building licensed by the government for evangelical Christian worship in our city of nearly three million people. Currently, just three other evangelical church buildings exist in the entire country of UAE. Each week, our building in Dubai hosts more than a dozen congregations which speak Arabic, Urdu, Chinese, Korean, Telugu, Tagalog, Hindi, and English, and in so doing it facilitates the gathered worship of thousands of evangelical believers from more than 70 nations.
We often tell our congregations that the church is not a building but a body: a blood-bought community of the redeemed. We stress this because conflating the church with a building is common and yet destructive to the church’s true identity and mission. Buildings can become distractions from the gospel; they can even become idols.
But just because a good thing is corruptible doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing. In fact, a church is not just a people; it’s a people constituted as a people by gathering in a place. Without some place to gather, like a building, scattered saints cannot become a church.
A building set apart for gospel use is a gracious gift from God, one that’s often been given through the sacrifices of previous generations. We too easily overlook or even grumble about what we should be thankful for.
As believers, our physical bodies matter. Genesis teaches this, and the incarnation confirms it. Similarly, a church is an assembly of embodied creatures who gather weekly because of the gospel and to be built up by that same gospel. So it’s no surprise that believers through the centuries have created designated spaces for gathered, regular worship—whether in homes, catacombs, or distinct church buildings.
FOUR BENEFITS OF A CHURCH BUILDING
1. Maximizing Word Ministry
The church grows in size and maturity as the gospel brings faith and conforms us into Christ’s image. This does not require a building, but a building supports the ministry of the Word.
With a dedicated building, the space can be optimized for preaching, teaching, and fellowship. The sound system can be prepared and ready. People know where to gather each week and how to get there. The HVAC system can mitigate bad weather and allow people to focus on the prayers, song lyrics, and sermon. Appropriate classrooms can be prepared for each specific need. Simply put, more people can benefit from the preaching and teaching of the Word when a space is optimized for this purpose.
A meeting space can be a distraction when the aim is entertainment or fostering a mystical experience. So we should design our spaces to center the congregation’s attention on the living and active Word of God because God has promised it will not return void. This reconfiguration of church buildings and worship halls occurred during the Protestant Reformation. Reformers placed the pulpit in the center, replacing the table for the Lord’s Supper. A building is a strategic part of a church’s trellis that can be intentionally shaped to support vine growth.
2. Stability for the Long-Term
The church is a collection of sojourners, but stability for gospel ministry is a welcome blessing. Some church leaders, especially in missions’ contexts, argue that believers should avoid becoming distracted by buildings because buildings can’t be replicated quickly enough. Such proposals are short-sighted. There is nothing strategic about a congregation being uncertain of where it will meet next month, or if they may be kicked out of their space, or if neighbors may complain if the congregation doubles in size.
Buildings promote stability and give greater freedom to gospel ministry. There are seasons and places where a dedicated church building is simply unavailable. But when such a building is available, a congregation can better sink deep roots into its neighborhood and community.
For its first 25 years, our congregation in Dubai gathered in schools and private homes. God provided what we needed for this season, but there were many challenges, too. After years of praying, HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum granted land for an evangelical church building in 1997. This grant of land and the building we built has given us the stability we needed for greater member care, training pastors, planting churches, and visibility to our witness. Speaking of…
3. Public Gospel Witness
A church’s public identity in a city is a persistent witness to the gospel. House churches are generally invisible, often intentionally. Again, this can be necessary at times. But the church should aspire to foster a corporate, public testimony to the gospel.
A few years ago bus routes were redrawn in our neighborhood, and the new bus stop in front of our church building was named “The Evangelical Church.” We were honored! Each Christmas, the ruler of another emirate graciously fixes Christmas lights in the parking lot of the Evangelical Church there. Before Easter, the local police strategize with us on how to manage the increased traffic.
Being a small Christian minority in an Islamic country, we’re glad to be recognized as a community fixture. Attempting to worship in secret could suggest we have nefarious and ulterior motives. Gathering publicly in an identifiable church building announces that we are Christians gathering to worship our Savior. We are glad to be a landmark for the curious in our city who want to understand more about the Bible, Jesus Christ, and our faith.
4. Cost Savings
Building projects require significant capital investment. On-going maintenance takes up valuable staff time and requires allocations from the annual budget.
But these costs are long-term investments in the ministry of the church. Short-term rental agreements and changing plans cost even more. When churches engage in building projects and upkeep wisely, the congregation can focus its financial resources on gospel work near and far that will have an impact in eternity. It also saves money for future generations of church members who can continue to make good use of the building.
The church in my region of the world is small, but it still contains evidence of the vibrant Christian faith of previous generations. I’ve walked through the ruins of a large basilica dating to fifth century Carthage (present-day Tunis) as well as the Hagia Sophia, constructed by emperor Justinian in sixth century Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). And on a small island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, near the border with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, sits the ruins of a Christian church and monastery from the seventh century. Although none of these ruins are used for Christian worship now, they testify to the Christian congregations and faith present in North Africa and the Middle East before the arrival of Islam.
If your church owns a building, give thanks to God, and remind your congregation to do so. Despite their quirks and faults, our buildings promote health and growth in our gatherings, while the gatherings testify to the communities around us that Christ is our risen Lord.