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Three Things Church Buildings Can Never Do

Three Things Church Buildings Can Never Do

From the book, The More with Less Church. Excerpt two: What are we telling ourselves when deciding to move forward on that new or larger church facility. Are our reasons based in truth?


Building Will Stimulate Growth. When I designed my dream sanctuary for First Church, I fully expected the building to attract new people and make the church grow faster. If ever one of my buildings was going to stimulate growth, this one would. Several years after the building was complete, I charted the church's growth history.

Before the building program, the church had been growing at a steady rate of three percent a year. After the building program, the church had grown at three percent a year.

It was humbling for this architect to admit that no church building, however perfectly designed, can make a church grow. The most a building can do is allow a church to grow. In one church of 160, those who "wanted the church to grow" were promoting a plan to relocate to a business district centrally located among the communities the church served. Relocation, they claimed, would make the church grow. While unattractive or inadequate facilities can hinder growth, for this church facilities were not the problem, they were an excuse. The real problem was that the church was doing absolutely nothing to grow. They didn't even follow up with guests.

Their attitude toward outreach was symbolized by two stern, silent old men who stood guard at the door. When I visited their service, it was not until I greeted the "greeters" that either spoke to me. Though the congregation did not need a new building, some members preferred to promote a building program rather than do the work of outreach that could actually lead to growth.

False: Building Will Increase Giving to Ministry. The myth that building programs will motivate more giving to ministry is an especially dangerous one, because it often appears to be true.

Especially at the beginning, large sums of money can be raised for a building program. A few members may even increase their giving long-term. So what's wrong with expecting a building program to increase giving to ministry? The increased giving isn't going to ministry.

The work of the church is to meet people's needs.  While a building program may motivate people to give more to pay for buildings, seldom is the increased giving enough to cover the cost of the building.

A rapidly growing church in Oklahoma earmarked 5 percent of all its income for local outreach. These funds were invested in various local ministries in which members of the church were involved, including an inner-city ministry, a ministry to pregnant teens, and several other ongoing projects. When the congregation launched a multimillion-dollar building program, the people gave generously in response. However, when building costs exceeded estimates, the church began looking for places to cut expenses. They abandoned their earmarking of 5 percent for local outreach and redirected most of those funds to the building program. While total giving increased, funds directed to meeting the needs of people decreased.

False: Building Will Motivate People to Minister. One of the first churches I worked for as an architect was a congregation of fifty in a small Kansas town. The moment I saw their building I understood why they wanted to build. It was small, dark, and dilapidated. The members were embarrassed to invite their friends. I would have been embarrassed too. If only they had a new, attractive building, the leaders thought, the people would no longer be embarrassed and would reach out to the community.

I helped them design a building that gave them room to grow. It had a bright nursery, attractive Sunday school rooms, and plenty of parking. They built that building and opened the doors. That was decades ago. Though the church has grown some, today it still has not outgrown that building. This church's mistake was that they expected a building to motivate people to minister. The members did not have a passion to reach people before they built. A new building did nothing to change that.

These three false expectations have one thing in common: they all assume that buildings can meet non-building needs. Buildings cannot stimulate growth, inspire healthy stewardship, or motivate
outreach. Why? Because these are all ministry needs, not building needs, and buildings cannot minister. If buildings cannot minister, what purpose do they serve?

They are tools for ministry. An appropriate buildingwhether borrowed, rented, or ownedcan provide space well-suited to the ministries it serves. It can help people feel more comfortable and welcomed. It can provide workspace and equipment to increase efficiency. It can make the ministries of the church more accessible to the community. It can do all these and more. But there is one thing a building can never do: it can never minister. Only people can do that.



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