Posted by: WesWoodell | November 13, 2008

I hate church buildings, and I don’t believe I’m alone

My wife and I drove into the church parking lot last night before Wednesday evening services. After pulling into a spot and throwing the transmission into park, I became lost in thought staring at the moon through my front windshield. My wife noticed that I’d zoned out and asked me what I was thinking about.

“Never setting foot inside another church building – ever,” I said.

And I was serious too.

Please read the rest of what I have to say gracefully. I am just one man with one opinion. I don’t claim to speak for anyone but myself, but don’t believe I’m alone in feeling the way I feel (quick sidenote: a pet peeve of mine is preachers and teachers who say “we” this and “we” that in describing some sin, spiritual shortcoming, or organizational error when very often their “we” should be their own “me.” Speak for yourself, buddy! Moving on …).

I still consider myself quite green in many areas of life. I’m only in my late twenties, have only been in ministry for half a decade, only been married for a few years, and my two kids are both under two years of age. I have no problem saying that there’s much in the world that I’ve yet to understand and much future experience will teach, but one thing I have come to understand in my limited experience is the redemption Jesus brings into the world, and the joy that comes with not only having it myself, but in sharing it with others – that “it” that’s embodied and manifested in Him.

Before giving my life to Christ I’d done nearly every kind of drug known to man, and I can honestly say that nothing – nothing – compares to the high I get in seeing someone who was lost, jaded, hopeless, and dead in sin to come to know Jesus and experience that total transformation from the root of their soul out. Nothing compares to that, and if too much time passes without my having witnessed another soul saved, I’m like an addict going through withdrawals – like there’s this itch that I just can’t seem to scratch, and the only relief I get comes from pouring myself into another person who doesn’t know my Savior.

Ok, so maybe that sounds a bit over the top, but its the best way I can describe how I’m feeling right now, and the best way I can describe how I was feeling last night when I made that statement to my wife.

I get excited when I read stories like this, and in a world where this can happen, you shouldn’t be surprised at hearing a full time minister and missionary saying he never wants to set foot inside another church building.

I’m so tired of the status quo and spectator Christianity, and I’m tired of being part of a system that, despite claims to the contrary, is strictly event focused. I’m tired of church buildings and what they’ve come to represent, and I don’t believe I’m the only one who feels this way.

I don’t believe I’m the only one dissatisfied, and dissatisfaction breeds revolution.

Anyone else reading feel like I do?

Despite my feelings or your feelings, I don’t think for a moment that church buildings are going to go away. In fact, my employer guarantees it (pfffttt :p).

Two questions:

1) Since they’re not going away, what are some suggestions for how church buildings/property can be used missionally?

2) What would Christianity look like if church buildings didn’t exist?

Please respond to #1 in a comment, and, if nothing else, take some time to reflect on #2.

Thanks for letting me vent :p



  1. […] 13, 2008 · No Comments Check out my latest article over […]

  2. 1 – Bring the community in to serve through things like AA, school supply giveaways, worship gatherings with focus on outreach, etc.

    2 – Seems to me it might actually look like the 1st century church which met in homes. I think it is ironic that the very group (CofC) that prides itself on being just like the first century church has the hardest time getting its mind around whether or not small groups/home groups are scriptural.

  3. Wes…interesting questions you’re posing at the end of your post. I am a church planter/lead pastor through Kairos Church Planting and we recently just launched Soma: A Church of the Christ in Salem, Oregon. All this to say…I and our leadership team have actually thought about this a lot.

    Right now, Soma is rather nomadic and I’d be lying if I didn’t say this reality of not owning a building or property is actually a luxury when answering this kind of question. Nonetheless, it seems like I am asked the “building question” on a weekly basis, and more recently, I have tended to answer the question by defining what it means to us to “be Jesus to the people around us.” Right now (and I say this humbly), if we were to get a building our leadership team has decided that we would use the space on Sunday nights (when we worship) and then give the building to the community the rest of the week for free (i.e., we would foot the bill to provide a place of safety and authentic community within our local West Salem community). Perhaps not the best move from a financial vantage point, but then again, we have simply experienced relational ministry at an amazing level in our current makeup. Maybe that will change, but I don’t foresee that any time soon.

    Oh, a thought on that second question…I wonder if a variation to the question might be, “What would Christianity look like if it were not the primary land/property owner in the world?” I might be wrong, but I recently heard a report that said the majority of land/property in the world was owned by church organizations. I wonder how Christ-Followers might be freed to love and serve if preservation of property were not a major focus. Just a thought.

  4. So CNN linked to this article … weird.

    Anyway, good thoughts guys. I especially like the idea of using your facility for more than just what most would consider “church stuff,” though the things you’re talking about (like AA and community service) really ought to be what comes to mind when you think “church stuff” – don’t ya think?

    I have a friend in Searcy – Scot Crenshaw – who started up free karate and tae-kwon-do classes for anyone in the community who’d show up. They used the Downtown Church of Christ building, and within a couple of years what they started as a community outreach for the church grew into the largest karate school in the state of Arkansas.

    What’s cooler than that is this – last I heard they’d recently baptized 18 people after developing relationships with them from the classes.

    Dwayne – your comment about lending out your building for free is what made me think of that. Good thinking.

    I’d never heard that Christians were the primary land owners in the world, but after thinking about it a bit it really wouldn’t surprise me too much at all.

    “I wonder how Christ-Followers might be freed to love and serve if preservation of property were not a major focus. Just a thought”

    That is a thought, and a very deep one.

  5. Wes, this is a really good post and I appreciate your honesty. Having come through my own struggles with addiction I understand where you are coming from and I too warm by the same fire that burns in your spirit.
    That being said, I can’t agree with you in saying that I ‘hate” church buildings. To me, the church building represents the very Spirit of Christianity. They come from some one or group saying “Christ belongs here.” It is a mark left by Christians that makes a claim that this small area of God’s created world belongs to Him. They represent blood, sweat, and tears of Christians who decided to use their God-given talents to let a community know that Christ dwells here and that we believe that when we gather here, he is in our presence. They are a modern-day alter built to God with the very materials that he created or gave men the knowledge to build.
    The building isn’t the problem, you and I are. If you make an effort to try your hardest to guarantee that every person who comes and offers praise to God at that alter leaves to take Christ into the world you will no longer resent the building. I will no longer resent the building. You and I (we) will no longer resent the people who are spiritually sleepwalking in our buildings.
    How can churches be used missionally? If someone sees Jesus living in me and I share something with them that they decide they want more of Jesus and what gives me the hope that I have they will know where to not only find me, but find Jesus. Jesus dwells in my heart therefore Jesus dwells in my church. Wanna meet him? I know where he will definitely be Sunday morning.

  6. David – I hear you.

    I hope that my family’s home represents for others what church buildings represent for you.

  7. Wes, I like your two questions. For now I’ll let churches with buildings think through the answer to #1. I like the ideas presented so far, though.

    Answer #2 is similar to another question someone recently asked me: “What if churches weren’t exempt from paying taxes to the government and therefore had less financial resources available to them?” I’m not sure how big of a financial hit U.S. churches would feel from this, but the point my friend was trying to make was this. If churches had far fewer dollars available to them it might actually be a good thing! Meaning, if we didn’t have enough money to maintain and renovate our buildings, employ our pastors, and keep all our church programs running, it might motivate some of us to live differently as Christians. No longer would we be able to count on ministry staff to spiritually feed us, on large worship events to define us, and on big programs to spread the gospel and meet felt-needs in the community. Those needs would have to be met without staff and buildings and the leaders who run the programs. They’d have to be met by every Jesus-follower living missional lives in their own communities. The point, we often to refer to our buildings and resources as a “blessing” from God, but they sometimes distract us from fulfilling our role as Jesus-folllowers.

    For two years we’ve been church planting in LA without buildings and paid preachers. There are pros and cons to this approach but in our case the pros far outweigh the cons.

    Downsides to not having a building include: It’s a foreign concept in the U.S. to have a church without a building. Even “unbelievers” come to the table with preconceived ideas of what a church is. You learn to be patient and retell your vision over and over. In some cases it has been too foreign for religious folks to accept. Other pastors and already-Christians have the hardest time with this. It’s difficult for them to accept us as a legitimate group or take us seriously. They raise an eyebrow to us and continue to ask us to pray that God will help their groups to find a bigger or less costly venue for their worship services. They also complain how tired they are from keeping all the programs running. Naturally, our top priority prayer requests are different, and there is a disconnect.

    Upsides to not having a building include: It has freed us to be more adaptable to people’s changing needs – home churches can change venues and times as needed and still be church. It has allowed us to be a church on the move and ‘take church to the people’ (kingdom lifestyle not fortress lifestyle) because we are not tied to the concept of getting everyone to come to us. It has helped new and veteran Christians to see more clearly (from our practice not just our lip service) that church really is a people not a place or event. Not having a building with an office has forced us to SHOW the community we are a legitimate church by our actions and lifestyle rather than by pointing to an address. (In John 13:34-35 Jesus said the world will know we are his disciples by loving one another the way he loved us… not by our ability to rent/purchase buildings, pay a preacher, and start a myriad of programs.)

    More upsides: Not having a static place to meet each week has forced us to blur the lines between the sacred and the secular in a good way – now we realize God wants every moment and place to BECOME sacred. We get to live out more fully the Romans 12 teaching that worship is a sacrificial way of life not an event on Sunday. Without the overhead costs it has freed us to pour the majority of our offerings into foreign and domestic missions and serving the poor and have more on hand to give directly to people as needs arise. In the U.S. we find people who are turned off to traditional churches and religion are often more open to pursuing God in the context of a home, park, coffee shop or other everyday place.

    The biggest benefit though is that it is easier for a new church (community of Jesus-followers) to see themselves reproducing more churches if they don’t have to rent/purchase and manage a building (or provide for the living expenses of a preacher and his family) to do it. We unnecessarily burden new Christians and hinder the spread of the gospel when we imply or flat out tell people they can’t be a real church or start a new church without a building or paid pastor. For me, it’s not about it’s not about whether or not to have buildings or paid pastors. It’s about what’s indefinitely reproducible for the spread of the gospel?

    And it’s also about who gets to make those decisions like “Will we get a building?” I say that is better when we leave it up to the new believers themselves to make those calls. Why impose our culture or preferred ways of doing church onto people when planting the gospel? Let’s just plant the seed and allow the Spirit to grow it up however he wants – with or without a building, with or without paid staff, etc. When we plant the gospel and help Bible study groups to transition into home churches, we’re not trying to prove the viability of a house church model. Neither are we trying to disprove the viability of a brick-and-mortar church. We go into it acknowledging that some of the home-based, laity-led churches we help new believers to start will remain home-based and laity-led. Other churches will decide they want to get a building and become “big church.” Similarly, some will decide they want to compensate one of their own to be a paid pastor. Some of the new churches may morph into a variety of different models as time goes by and their situations change.

    We plant the seed (gospel) not buildings. As the seed grows it may involve buildings sometime in the future or it may not. Our job as missionaries in Los Angeles is to make disciples and teach them to obey all the commands of Christ. We teach obedience-based discipleship that sees disciples reproducing disciples, leaders reproducing leaders, and churches reproducing churches. We don’t tell them how to put church together in their culture. Rather, we teach them that the Word of God is the teacher and train them to discern from God’s Word and the guidance from the Holy Spirit how their obedience gets expressed in their context. This means church gets put together differently in different cultures and at different times, but obedience remains the same.

    While part of me is tempted to imagine a world where all churches have no buildings, I’d rather imagine a church where we are committed to planting the seed alone. Let’s preach Jesus, not Jesus + __________ (fill in the blank with our preferred ways of doing church). Let’s train people in obedience-based discipleship to Jesus Christ and let them figure out for themselves if their obedience would be better expressed right now with or without a building, paid staff, or tiny communion cups, or this or that worship style. We can work with the indigenous leaders of the new churches and serve as a guide to them in the process. But let’s not shortchange them by making those decisions for them.

    Good questions, Wes. Let’s keep imagining in Jesus’ name!

  8. […] apostle”) – left a very thoughtful comment in response to the questions posed in my last post on this blog (read more of Phil’s writings over at […]

  9. Two adjacent thoughts that came to mind that probably need more explanation, but come from someone from limited time.

    1. Interesting how we who live within a 21st American consumeristic mindset tend to associate extreme amounts of value and meaning to “stuff” (i.e., buildings, cars, homes, clothes, etc.). I was recently at an Advent Conspiracy forum at Imago Dei and I found it interesting how Rick McKinley described consumerism as a “dangerous addiction.” So, at the end of the day, the “things” really aren’t the problem. BUT…I think it is a fair point to consider that most churches assume that having a building is the ONLY way to do it, thus perpetuating a problem. Good job, Phil, for living outside the box.

    2. Just had a conversation with someone today about helping a more traditional church to think/live missionally. This obviously is a complex answer, but as we talked, I wonder how often assumed structures (e.g., a building or certain way of doing worship) prevent Christ-Followers from thinking/living more missionally? Our church calendar, for instance, is very lean on “churchy” things, thus forcing people to spend time with pre-Christians.

  10. #1 Wes, I love the idea of building a church building as a community center first and then finding a way to use it for “worship assembly” later. If we have a building it should have a great kitchen to feed the poor, and showers and beds. It should have a place to house different ministries. It should be a place where kids can come and be tutored and taken care of when parents need to work.

    I would prefer if these things were done more in homes and intentional communities, but as you said church buildings dont seem to be going anywhere. So perhaps they should be used to really bless the community and provide more opportunities for us to share Christ.

    #2 Well I would hope it would look more like the early church or the body I experienced in China. More meal sharing, more intimacy, more fluidity of membership from one gathering to another. It would also put each of us in position where we had to practice incarnation more and rely on others less to do it for us.

  11. […] had some fun with this post the other day (and hope you did too), but just for clarification: I see value in what each of these […]

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