The 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.
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?
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