Church Buildings Should Serve People, Not Vice Versa

VW flatbedOur church building wasn’t designed to do the ministry God has called our church to do.

If your church has that problem, this post may help you. The answer our church found is something I call hauling rocks in a Volkswagen. (Keep reading. It’ll make sense, soon).

This year marks the 50th anniversary of our church facility. That’s not old as far as church buildings go, but it’s old enough to matter.

Back when it was built, most people came to church three or four to a car, wearing suits and ties or dresses. They sat politely in the choir loft or the pews, singing from hymnbooks led by an organ and piano.

Wednesday was family night. Mom and dad sat in the main room hearing a bible study, while the kids went to the back rooms for flannel-graph bible stories and the youth memorized verses for the upcoming Bible Quiz contest.

On Thursday morning, the women met for a quilting club to send blankets to missionaries. On Saturday morning the men met for a prayer breakfast.

Not anymore.

Today, people come one or two per car. Some arrive on bikes and skateboards. Everyone is dressed casually. They bring a coffee cup into church with them, sing worship songs led by a band with drums and guitars, reading the words off a screen. During the sermon, they follow along in the Bible from their phone or iPad, tweeting or Facebooking sermon points as they happen. Those who are sick or travelling check in to our live stream of each service.

Today is better.

Why? Because yesterday is gone and today is happening now.

But today has challenges my predecessors never dreamed of when they built our tiny, landlocked building.


Hauling Rocks In a Volkswagen

No, it hasn’t been easy to make these cultural shifts. Some took a great deal of time, patience and a few tears, too.

As each of these changes has taken place, most of our people have adapted. (If you’re wondering how to do that, click here for a previous post that might help.) But the building…? Now that’s another story.

Our church building wasn’t built to do what we’re asking it to do. So we’ve had to make some serious adjustments along the way.

I call it hauling rocks in a Volkswagen. Here’s why. 

Imagine you’ve been given the task of hauling rocks. But the only vehicle you have is a Volkswagen Beetle.

You have a choice.

Option one is to cover the seats with blankets, so they won’t get dirty or torn, then lay the rocks in as gently as possible. You’d haul just a few rocks at a time, because too many rocks would ruin the shocks and suspension.

Option two is to cut the roof off, tear the back seats out and replace them with plywood or sheet metal. Then reinforce the suspension, dump in all the rocks you can and start hauling.

That’s what our church does with our church building. We’re called to haul rocks. So we do what we can with the Volkswagen we have. Because using the building to serve people is more important than using people to serve the building.


Put the Mission First

What does “hauling rocks” looks like for us?

Here are just a few examples.

Our main sanctuary is our only sizable room, so we don’t have pews bolted to the sanctuary floor any more. Instead, we use folding chairs that get set up and torn down 8-10 times in an average week. They’re set up for church on Sunday, then taken down for preschool classrooms Monday-Friday (yes, in the main chapel). But they’re set up again for youth group on Tuesdays and kids’ night on Wednesdays. On Thursdays we have worship team and women’s ministries and on Saturday mornings there’s a health and wellness class. All in the main room. All requiring set-up and tear-down.

During the week, our main church hallway doubles as storage for all the furniture we use on Sunday that won’t fit anywhere else.

Outdoors, our parking lot is home to the only skateboard park in town. It costs us several of our already limited parking spaces, but it’s used multiple times each week, including by para-church ministries that use it free of charge, because ministering to the youth matters more than parking cars.

In recent years, we’ve replaced trees and grass with an outdoor patio, including an outdoor kitchen. And we’ve replaced the real grass on our playground with artificial turf because it gets used so much we couldn’t keep real grass green in the California drought.

TGM box sale 250cSo why am I telling you all this?

To brag? Complain? Because I want you to do what we’re doing?

None of the above.

It’s because we have a mission to love God and serve the people in our community. That’s what using our building to fulfill our mission looks like for our church.

It will look different for your church and your community. But maybe what we’ve done can inspire other churches to imagine what putting people ahead of their building might look like for them.


Can a Building Be Holy?

In my last post, I talked about being careful not to let our church buildings kill our church. I think one of the ways we allow our church buildings to control us is when we treat church buildings as holy places.

I know this will rub many of you the wrong way, but church buildings are not holy. At least not the way many of us think they are.

Sure, there were holy places in the Old Testament. But there aren’t any in the New Testament. In the New Testament it’s very clear that we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. People, not buildings, are where God dwells.

So, even if you disagree with me that there are holy places, we may need to readjust our thinking about what holy means. Does a holy place exist to be kept in pristine condition at all costs? Or is it sanctified by worship, fellowship and ministry? You know the loving Jesus and loving people parts.

No matter what your theology of holy places may be, we should all agree on this.

The church doesn’t exist to build and sustain facilities – no matter how beautiful some of them might be. The facilities exist to serve the church. And the church is the people.

Facilities should facilitate. That is, they should serve a purpose beyond themselves. Form should follow function, not vice versa.

If church facilities have any spiritual value at all, it is to the extent that they facilitate worship of Jesus and service to each other.

Otherwise, turn the ugly ones into malls and the beautiful ones into museums.

I know that sounds harsh, but at least as malls and museums, they’d be doing what they say they are.

On the other hand, there are few things more beautiful than a church facility whose doors are always open to minister to people and give them a place to worship Jesus together. No matter what the architecture looks like.

Like an old ad for Volkswagen used to say – it’s ugly, but it gets you there.


This is one of a series of posts about rethinking how we use our church facilities. Here are some previous ones:

Or check out my follow-up post, Do Ministry FROM the Church, Not Just IN the Church.

So what do you think? What could your church do to use your building better?

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4 thoughts on “Church Buildings Should Serve People, Not Vice Versa”

  1. We’re fortunate that we got to build our building to ‘haul rocks’ and tried really hard to build flexibility into the facility. Much easier than having to do what you folks did and I applaud you for going there.

  2. Pingback: Good Reads 04.15.15 (on: fear, sexulaity, children and church, and more) | First Baptist Church of Adrian, MO

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