Buildings, buildings, buildings  -short term and long term thinking

Photo by Tom Fisk on

There’s been a bit of a discussion over the past few days about church planting and the importance of owning your own building.  There have been two big prompts for this. First of all, the FIEC posted this article from Adrian Reynolds discussing the pros and cons of not owning your own building:

Secondly, David Gibson shared this tweet.

Now, I happen to agree with David that we need to think long term when it comes to Gospel work. We live ready for this to be our last day, there’s Gospel urgency to the possibility that Christ may return at any moment but we also prepare for the long haul.  This means that as a church, you should always have an eye on how your decisions might affect the next generation and beyond.  

As it happens, I also agree with him and others who see a benefit to owning your own building.  I’ve pastored a church which had it’s own “chapel” and I’ve seen the problems churches have faced in terms of survival through tough times because of their lack of a guaranteed, long term venue. Our current church are praying for the day when we have a home we can call our own. There are practical challenges to having to use a school or a community room, mind you, your own building will bring its challenges too. Meanwhile, there are also concerns that as secular society becomes increasingly hostile to the Gospel that we might find it harder to identify willing landlords.

However, I don’t agree with the implication that if you are not focused on buildings that you somehow don’t care about the long term future of the church and are short-termist. First of all, this is because it is fairly obvious that the primary drivers for getting our own buildings are as much about the short term, about protecting our ability to meet now and over the next few years as are decisions to rent and not buy or build.

Secondly, I would argue that whilst we may need to think in terms of future increasing hostility, owning your own building may well not be the only protective response and indeed you may find that it offers no protection at all. If the authorities don’t like what you say, then they’ll close you down regardless of where you live. But when we look to other countries where there is real, overt persecution, we discover that the church has found other ways to keep going in the face of persecution.  If the worst comes to the worst, we can meet in one another’s homes or we can find parks and forest clearings to gather in.  It of course depends on what se see as essential to church life and the work of the Gospel.

Thirdly, my experience of short-termism includes seeing how those who designed and built church buildings often didn’t look beyond their own situation. If some of us are less passionate about buildings it’s because of the number of times our 100, 200, 500 year old buildings have proved woefully obstructive to church life in our present context.  For example, the founders of my previous church decided first to stick the building down a drive to escape the noise of horses hooves on the road. The result was a building that lacked visibility and created a barrier in terms of getting people to come down the drive. Secondly, they built it in such a way that we were feeling pretty full whenever we got more than 70 people and that constrained growth.

Fourthly because the buildings we get will also shape how we do things. As I mentioned, our church are looking for a premises but the exact location and the nature of the site may well shape some of our ministry and mission decisions. I would prefer that to work the other way round.  So, I think plants are wise not to rush to lock themselves into a building context. Make sure you are at a stage where your mission shapes your building choices rather than being shaped by them.

Fifthly, because I find it fascinating when people whose churches are part of denominations and networks talk about the importance of buildings safeguarding the future. Unless you are an independent church with your own trustees who have legal ownership of the building and a constitution that very clearly protects the Gospel, then you cannot over boldly declare that you are future proof. Even our old church which was in that position had a sneaky clause to the effect that if we ever ceased to function in the exact way our founding father envisioned then the building was to be handed over to the Salvation Army, even though the 21st Century Sally Army would probably be a long way away from his tastes. But often buildings are owned by denominations or there are holding trustees outside of the church with their own prior responsibilities. Just look at the experience of churches that have left the Church of Scotland or consider the reason why a number of churches feel that they have no option but to remain in the Baptist Union.

Finally, because it always makes sense to look at what is happening around you.  I wouldn’t encourage a church plant to be buying and building right now. Just have a quick look at property prices and construction costs.  Remember too that you’ll be asking members to give sacrificially to the project in the middle of a cost of living crisis. Don’t forget that many churches are struggling to pay staff right now.  There’s a good chance though that we’ll see the market crash soon and that’ll make it easier to find vacant premises at better value for money.  So, I’d hold on a bit longer.

So, yes, buildings are helpful and yes, there are challenges to not having them. But it isn’t short termist if you haven’t yet made buildings your number one priority. Keep your focus on sharing Jesus with others.

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