Don’t Let Your Church Building Kill Your Church

Broken SteepleThe church in North America is getting smaller.

No, I don’t think we’re going to say goodbye to the megachurch any time soon – at least I hope not. By all indications, the biggest churches will become even bigger.

But, according to many church trend-watchers like Ed Stetzer, even megachurch leaders are understanding the need for multiple smaller venues instead of bigger and bigger megabuildings.

The era of the mega-church-building, even as megachurches keep growing, may be over.

This is just part of an overall societal trend towards more personalization. The one-size-fits-all era is gone.

For instance, in the last few decades we’ve gone from the big three TV networks, to hundreds of cable channels, to online TV and movie queues tailored to each person’s specific watching habits. The same has happened in radio, automobiles, musical genres, books… you name it.

I think this tendency towards smaller, bistro-style niche tastes leaves the church in North America with a choice.

Fight the tendency towards smaller and lose out, or do Small Church really well and lead the culture into a better way.

As an example, I used to hate my Small Church building. I blamed our church’s lack of numerical growth on a lack of vision by the founders. They built too small a building on too small a plot of land. (As it turns out, the lack of growth had several other factors, including my own mistakes, as I reference in this podcast I did with Carey Nieuwhof.)

I don’t get mad at my small building now. Well, not as often as I used to, anyway. Now there are some days when I’m actually grateful I have less facility to maintain.

 

The Post Brick-and-Mortar Era

Church attendance and construction boomed in North America during a time when having your own building was expected. For churches, businesses and families.

In my parents’ era, owning real estate was a sign of success, status and stability. So churches that wanted to be seen as reliable and successful bought buildings. Often before there was a congregation to fill them. 

When someone started their own business, they would leave their house to sit in a building behind a desk all day long – even if every aspect of that business could have been done from their house. The brick-and-mortar building meant reliability and permanence.

A plumber, for instance, would rent an office where a secretary would answer the phone, welcome walk-ins, bill customers, etc., while the plumber spent all day in their van going from job to job. Today’s smart phones have made that office unnecessary. The plumber now answers their own phone and bills people electronically before he leaves their home.

Brick-and-mortar may not be dead, but it is on life-support. No one buys or rents a building for their business unless they have to. And most businesses are finding out they don’t have to.

 

Some Better Building Ideas

The church should be leading the way in this idea of being less building-reliant, rather than playing catch-up, like we usually do.

Churches don’t always need buildings. Maybe most don’t. Certainly most start-up or Small Churches don’t need to own, when they can rent.

No, I’m not against church buildings. As I said already, my church owns one. But I believe very strongly that we are at the start of an era in which church buildings need to be used much more carefully.

The church building that sits empty from Monday through Saturday won’t be able to survive in the very near future – and it probably shouldn’t.

We already lose more churches every year from inability to pay the mortgage than from any other factor. If we don’t start addressing this issue soon, this problem will grow exponentially as the size and giving capacity of the average congregation shrinks. The increased weight of paying the mortgage, maintenance and upkeep on a building is going to collapse local churches in record numbers.

If we’re not careful, our church buildings might kill our church body.

So how do we avoid keeping the increasing building costs from killing our church and/or sucking valuable resources from hands-on ministry? Especially in smaller churches? Here are some ideas I think we need to take seriously.

  • Learn how to minister from our church buildings, not just in our church buildings
  • If you don’t have a church building, don’t be in a rush to buy or build one
  • Don’t just raise enough money to buy or build, budget enough money to maintain what you build
  • Share buildings with other church and ministries whenever possible
  • Network with other churches to share resources
  • If you own a building, use it seven days a week (start a preschool, homeless shelter, etc)
  • Rent a building that’s sitting empty on Sunday (office space, school, etc)

 

Beyond the Building

Owning a church building used to be one of the surest ways to guarantee the future of a local congregation. In many places, there may still be some truth to that.

But in more and more places, especially in church plant situations, our obsession with church buildings may be one of the biggest factors in crippling churches that might otherwise do great ministry for many years.

When churches spend more time and money maintaining their building than doing actual ministry, they lose their edge and their purpose.

And when more of the hard-earned money the congregation gives goes to pay a mortgage and upkeep than goes to feed the poor and preach the Gospel combined, the church becomes irrelevant and unnecessary.

The bottom line is this.

If your church doesn’t have a building, don’t be in a rush to get one. Figure out how to worship, minister and grow without one for as long as possible.

If your church has a building, use it to serve people, not the other way around. The building is not holy. It is not the only place where we meet with Jesus. It is where we meet with other people to worship Jesus.

Put worship first. Put Jesus and his people first. Use the building as a tool to worship Christ and serve people instead of using the people to serve the building.


Want to read more like this? Check out my companion post, Kill Your Church Traditions Before They Kill Your Church.


So what do you think? What message are you sending by how you use your church building?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Broken Steeple photo from zen Sutherland • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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23 thoughts on “Don’t Let Your Church Building Kill Your Church”

  1. Charlie Wallis

    I think this is so accurate for our time. Having buildings for smaller churches is becoming more of a burden than a blessing. Sometimes small buildings are an advantage. We are considering ways to consolidate use of our buildings and possibly use them for transitional housing or other programs. Your suggestions are very good to consider. A large church in our town that cannot pay its mortgage reportedly will sale the building to the local school district and will lease it back for services.

  2. Ralph Juthman

    Great thoughts and encouragement Karl. Two things I am learning about buildings in small towns. I see the day when they will not exist simply because of expense. They will need to make a choice, try to maintain a building or spend available resources on serving people. I am hearing people in my own church lament that without more people to give more money we will have to close the church. My answer is yes we may close the building, but we will not close the church. Our small community has places where we could meet for next to no rent. Even the rent at the local school would be less than what we pay for heat,mutilities and taxes ( for the parsonage).

    Another trend I see in small towns is for churches to begin to share buildings and resources. This may be more long term, but necessity will be the mother of invention.

    Maybe God is using the price of building to move us out into the community much in the same way He allowed persecution to move the church out of Jerusalem and go with the gospel into Samaria?

  3. I remember hearing a message once on the story of the paralytic man who was lowered through the ceiling to find Jesus. It was at a pastors conference and the preacher stopped mid-way and pointed out that although this man was determined to get to Jesus, there were 2 things preventing him, the building and the large crowd. Don’t recall the rest of the message but I will never forget that as long as I live.

    1. Glenn Hawkins

      Dan, most excellent comment! As pastor of a small church, we’re presently meeting in an American Legion hall, and have been since we began four years ago. Now we have a possibility of leasing to own a small church building which closed down after the congregation dwindled to about 8. This is a very poignant statement for my congregation, as I try to tell them to hold this possibility with an open hand, because we could, by leasing the building prevent very fruitful ministry from our present location. Thanks for the comment!

  4. This was a great article. About 5 years ago we recognized that as a small church we had a building and a piece of land right in the center of our city but it was not being used hardly at all other than Sunday. We started praying what God would have us do and He answered in some really amazing ways. We now have a community garden and disc golf course on our church property. Our building is now used 6 days a week by the YMCA, Prep4Kids (which brings local grade school children to our church during their school day for Bible classes), a mom’s of preschoolers group, and a drama group that uses our building. Amazingly too, there has been very little money spent from the church budget developing any of these ministries. Has our church grown, not really. We are still small but we have had countless opportunities to share the gospel with those in our community through the use of our building. And one of these groups paid for a remodel of our auditorium, so now we have new flooring and beautiful stackable chairs. Sometimes I think that small churches need to pray way outside the box and ask God what He can do with a handful of people and a small space, both of which are committed to Him.

  5. Our small church is moving into rented space in an urban neighborhood for Sunday mornings. We would still like to have 24/7 space for other ministries, however. One idea we’ve had is to buy a house in the neighborhood. We could put offices in it, a chapel, do some mid week ministries and even have a community garden as an outreach tool in the yard. This is one way to get creative with space.

  6. “Maybe God is using the price of building to move us out into the community much in the same way He allowed persecution to move the church out of Jerusalem and go with the gospel into Samaria?”
    Ralph that is a great thought! I would just take off the “maybe”. We should be able to follow Jesus without church buildings, not just because we can’t pool enough money to buy or maintain them but because of sharpened obedience to revelation. Currently according to Leadership Journal’s article on normal church budgeting, facilities consume 20% of the budget. (That does not include building them to begin with nor capital improvements.) That percent is larger than what is left to go out the door of the church to serve the poor and send the gospel to all nations (16% on average). Churches could more than double their funding of local and world wide outreach simply by learning to do all of church life in smaller groups. Is there anything God asked for that requires a large number of people in one room? I can’t think of one. What a ministry edge this would add to the household of faith.

  7. I agree that we should not be beholden to a “thing” for ministry. But I am concerned that we are being a little too black and white. Scripture does make reference to things that are dedicated to God. The temple was(IS) a very important building. Sanctuary. The place where we find shelter, refuge and even asylum.

    Have we not walked the aisles of our churches and consecrated the place to God and His worship? How many miracles and salvations have we seen at the altars? How then do we just abandon that?

    I am not saying every church needs a building. I am saying that spending budget money to keep a consecrated place is not a waste. We live in such a consumer culture that nothing is sacred any longer. There should be much prayer and consideration to the decision. The decision to buy a building or to sell. Maybe the congregation should sell and move on. Maybe the building is not a Sanctuary any longer.

    I’m not a big event guy. I like up close and personal ministry. I like sitting in a living room and discussing Biblical truths. So I really like not being beholden to physical structure but there can be significant value in staking a claim of real estate for God.

    1. I agree that “place” matters, John. I’m actually working on a post about that. My point in this post isn’t that church buildings are bad, but that we need to use them better if we have them, and not rush into getting one if we don’t. A church building that’s only used on Sundays is a waste. One that’s used 7 (or even 5) days a week is a blessing.

  8. I think this is very context dependent. Ten years ago I planted a church in a very small community in rural NW Wisconsin. Didn’t plan on owning our own building but after 7 years of meeting in the local school (Sunday AM only, no ability to use the facility at other times), we bought property and then built our own building. We just completed a kids ministry addition. In our context, the local community, as a whole, did not consider us to be a ‘real’ church because we didn’t have a building-the assumption was that we were some sort of a cult. In addition, not having a building communicated the unintended message that we weren’t committed to the community for the long term. If we hadn’t built, I don’t think we would still exist today. We don’t use the building more than a couple days a week. Again, very small community. Setting up a preschool would put us in competition with the preschool that has been here for many years. Wanted to open the facility for senior citizens but that won’t work for several reasons. Point is, you have to know and understand the context in which you pastor/minister when thinking about facility.

    1. I agree this is dependent on context, Ken. Like I wrote in the post, “Owning a church building used to be one of the surest ways to guarantee the future of a local congregation. In many places, there may still be some truth to that.” It sounds like you live in one of those places. A good leader makes that assessment and adapts to it, as you have. Way to go!

    2. Ken says: “..the local community, as a whole, did not consider…” Really, the whole community? How did you determine that? While there is not instruction not to invest in holy facilities, there is a complete overwhelming presence of instruction on the power of intimate, mutual, love connection to the real needs of people in the community. Do we trust this overwhelming instruction and example as the power God has designed reveal the love of God for the lost? Do we realize that when we invest heavily in holy facilities, God’s people expect the lost to come to our turf to know about God? Do we realize how little God’s people see the turf of the lost as the location for witness, and how few resources are left over to give to meet real needs? Do we realize that once we have a holy facility believers also largely wait for a professional to vision and drive the ventures outside the facilities? From a previous post we see the hired staff concerned that some, even a few are involved outside the holy facility such that they have less time for his programs inside the facility. Church history is loaded with examples of believers cocooning in their facilities. How easy we set aside functionally and in our priorities and funding, the overwhelming revelational instruction. Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. This axiom of the heart shows that we can see the heart by the direction of our treasure. Coast to coast we see the church invested deeply in a faith that requires a campus for perceived success. We also see very little resources left over to reach outside the campus. We are largely content with that little bit. We have great difficulty in trusting God to go beyond ministry that we have seen to trust him to empower ministry that we have not seen in order to achieve greater returns for the kingdom. We are lured into walking by sight rather than by faith. There are very good truth answers and love action answers for the community that says they think believers need a campus. I would suggest the revelation of God trumps the perception of some in the community. They don’t know the power of God’s revelation lived out by his people to shock their perceptions into reality. Love does that.

  9. I think that sharing your physical space is important to keep a healthy faith community in these days. Look around you and see what your community needs and share the campus you have. Maybe your surrounding community needs a really good car repair service. Maybe you can rent space for a car repair service that also provides donated cars for the poor. Many communities need low income housing maybe low income housing can be a component of your campus. Maybe selling part of your campus is a good thing. Maybe selling you church and moving is correct. The key is to discern your church campus with the eyes of Jesus rather than the just wanting to be safe and secure.

  10. Pingback: RT @KarlVaters: Owning real estate used to be a si… | The Richard W. Hendricks Experience

  11. I was a licensed minister in a church that experience a major split over the pastor’s obsession with a new sanctuary. The church’s first building was intentionally designed to be multipurpose with a large meeting room that could be used for worship, fellowship, Christian education, and public events, a kitchen, two offices, a nursery, and three smaller meeting rooms. The church would later construct an educational center which was used as a early childhood development center during the week and as Christian education building on Sundays The educational center was also designed that it also be used as a senior center if the area’s demographics changed. The pastor and a segment of the congregation, however, were not satisfied with the multipurpose building as a worship center. They wanted a more traditional sanctuary with pews, kneelers, choir stalls, and an organ. The culture of the denomination was also one in which a pastor’s success was measured in terms of the number of buildings that were constructed during his pastorate. The church, however, had encumbered substantial debt from the construction of the first two buildings. The church board did not believe that the church should make any further loans for the construction of a third building until the church’s indebtedness had been reduced. It favored the exploration of other options such as the addition of a third service on Sunday morning and the formation of a long-range planning committee to help the church board in determining what would be the best course of action for the future development of the church. The area’s population was growing and the church’s congregation was growing with it.

  12. I planted a church 8 years ago in a gym. Things were going great and we grew to Over 100 people in a short time and people were being saved, baptized and lives changed. Then at year 2 we decided to buy a church building. Big mistake the money we could have used for other ministries went to pay our mortgage and maintain the building. Finally after 8 years we closed the church as people were burnt out over the mortgage and we finally closed the church. How different I believe things could have been had we never bought the church building.

    1. Thanks for sharing that, Brian. I can’t imagine how painful that must have been.

      Your story is repeated in too many places. Hopefully, by telling your story here, other churches can learn and avoid the same fate.

  13. Folks after reading all of these comments I must agr that any building new building in a church as small as mine needs lots of thought and planning.

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