Posted by: WesWoodell | November 15, 2008

No Church Building – Pros and Cons From a Simple Church Planter

Phil McCollum – a Los Angeles based simple church planter (or as I like to call men like him – a “little ‘a’ 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 WayOfLifeVillage.org).

My questions were as follows:

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?

Here’s Phil’s response:

——

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!

——

Now that’s worth reading right there.

Phil – thank you very much for your thoughtful response. I have a deep respect for what you’re doing and the motives driving your methodology. Bless you, brother!

Anyway, I’m feeling a bit cheeky, so I’ll leave you with this:

I dare you to show that at your next building committee meeting … Ha!

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Responses

  1. […] is a comment I made on another blog by Wes Woodell about the pros and cons of not having a church building.  […]

  2. Wes – Thanks for letting me share my thoughts on this blog. I’m encouraged by your big heart for God and the college students of San Francisco!


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