A Change In The Building Plans
A few months ago, I came across an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal. The article, entitled ‘Fewer Churches Are Going Up’ reminded me of what I had written in my book, No Longer Church As Usual. Even though I love and have been inspired by beautiful church buildings, I have come to understand WHO the church is. I have concluded that church buildings may be appealing but they are functionally inept. The Wall Street article was a stark reminder and confirmation that our love affair with church buildings is coming to an end. The church building, that was once an iconic visage of American church life has now become a symbol of a system that is declining.
To be clear, our love for the Lord Jesus Christ is not declining. It is the man-made system we have encased Him in that is coming apart at the seams. The article cited several reasons for the decline in new church construction. They included: a drop in formal religious participation, changing donation habits, a shift away from the construction of massive mega-churches and, more broadly, a growing case for alternatives to the traditional house of worship.
In the article (The Church Tipping Point), I cited factors are converging that will shift the focus of ministry as we know it. These factors include: heightened communication through electronic media, the growing lack of loyalty to denominational structures, the blending of worship styles, time constraints, and personal independence. These factors are the foundation for a massive change in how ‘church’ is done, which in turn will impact where we meet.
The handwriting was on the wall several years ago, and many of us failed to see the signs. Churches began to design their buildings to appeal to the baby boomer generation. They eliminated the stained-glass windows and religious symbols seen in traditional churches. The new buildings looked more like conference centers, than cathedrals. Suits, ties, and fancy dresses were replaced by casual dress. Instead of choir stands, the stage of many churches begin to resemble those found in theater production companies – complete with lighting, screens and special effects. Looking back, this was the beginning of our attempt to hold on to those who were losing interest in an old system.
When you consider that the number of Americans who say they have never attended services rose to 25.3% in 2012, up from 9.3% in 1972, you can easily see the need for buildings is diminishing. Yet, dedicated religious facilities are found in every community, and most people still refer to them as the church. Most Christians give lip service to the fact that the church is a called out body of believers, but still identify themselves with a particular building. I hear people say, “The church is in me”, but use that phrase as an excuse not to GO TO church. In other words, in their minds they see the church as a place you GO TO rather than who they are.
Follow the money trail...
Let’s take a few moments to talk about money. This Wall Street article indicated that giving to religious organizations has flat lined. It stated that religious groups that took in half of all charitable contributions in 1990 now get less than a third amid a shift in generational giving habits. In other words, the church is competing with organizations that purport to be doing something, rather than maintaining something, and the religious systems are losing the battle.
In my book, I shared my experiences with bank executives and their conservative views relating to lending to churches. The bottom line, to them the church building in general is a poor investment from a business standpoint. They are only used once or twice a week. The return on the cost per square foot did not make sense from a financial point of view. In addition most churches are “single use facilities”. That means they are designed for one purpose – church meetings. The income source from churches for loan repayment was unstable even in the best of conditions. Churches often relied heavily on contributions from its membership. If the membership became disgruntled, the income to the church could be jeopardized.
Many in the church world have their heads in the sand...
I return to my monthly mantra, the church as we know it is changing. Outside entities like the Wall Street are seeing the shift, but internally many in the church world have their heads in the sand. It is easy to use our clip and paste theology to attribute the decline in church attendance to “the great falling away” (2Thessalonians 2:3). I would suggest that the decline is a result of divine scrutiny. When you see people leave church systems, but still cling tightly to the Lord – that should give us pause to think. You see, the falling away mentioned in scripture will be those who give up on God – not church systems. The church that Jesus purchased with his blood, is not the sectarian denominational system we embrace today (Acts 20:28). It is THAT system that people are leaving. It is THAT system that people refuse to give their money to. It is THAT system that is struggling to survive.
We competitively tout our version of Christianity in an attempt to attract new converts. But now it appears our customers are out looking for alternatives – and our buildings are emptying out. So the focus in many churches has subtly shifted from winning souls to filling the pews.
The competition intensifies through enticing methodologies. Churches now offer contemporary and traditional worship services in an attempt to attract more members. Recently, there is a video that went viral on YouTube showing a church where people were dancing during their service to raunchy secular music. The pastor tried to defend this by claiming his message had to appeal to various generations. Another bishop recently apologized for "allowing one of his pastors to make hurtful remarks" during his message at a conference. The pastor had preached against homosexuality, and several prominent people in the church were offended and threatened to leave the church. The list goes on and on.
Existing buildings will be sold and resold – some to church organizations and others will be repurposed. I am sure there will be new buildings erected, too. We own the building we have gathered in for the last 20 years free and clear. You may also know from my previous blogs that we are transitioning into a network of New Testament churches that gather from house to house. We consider the building we have to be a training and resource center. We will provide the tools believers need to be effective in our community and region. Our goal is to use this building to provide resources for 120 or more gatherings in this region.
In the end, Jesus is still building His church, His way in the 21st century. It is not being built as a brick and mortar facility. His church is not relying on programs and events. He is building His church with believers like you and me who are lively stones that become a spiritual house (1Peter 2:5); and built together for habitation of God (Ephesians 2:22); one body fitly joined together (Ephesians 4:16). Transition is tough and challenging, but I look forward to seeing the church that He said He would build demonstrating His power in the earth.
Tim Kurtz is the founder of The Center for New Testament Church Development. The ministry was formed in 2010 with the mission to plant regional churches that reflect the values and structure of the first century church.