Friday, July 17, 2009

Young pastor asks about church buildings

Over the past few months I been having a lot of e-mail correspondence with a couple of younger seminary guys. They were entering seminary about the time I was leaving, and we have kept in touch. Both of them recently launched into churches over the summer (one a church plant and one a traditional church). They have peppered me with tons of questions, so I've taken some of the better ones and will be posting them over the next few weeks.

Our church plant has just bought property and are now planning a building. Our leadership team can't decide if we should build a traditional-type sanctuary or something that doesn't look so traditional. Thoughts?

Josh's answer: Yes I have a few thoughts. First, what in the world do you mean by "traditional"? Certainly you can't be referring to biblical tradition. The "traditional" church comes to us from our Protestant forefathers who simply took the architectural styles of the Medieval Roman Catholics. The Catholic church had a seriously flawed view of the Church--equating it with the Kingdom of God and viewing it primarily as institutional and geographical. Thus, in Catholic thought the "sanctuary" is the spot where we gather to take the mass and worship (whereas in Scripture the sanctuary is the people of God themselves). The Reformers, in a slightly better though still misguided move, redefined the sanctuary as the place where the congregant encounters the spoken Word (e.g. bible preaching). Though better, they still misunderstood the whole idea of "Church"--which biblically means "an assembly of believers".

I personally think the absolutely worst thing a congregation could do is to build a church building that looks anything like a "church". Any argument in its favor must necessarily abandon scriptural definitions and examples. Arguments in its favor generally are one of the following two:

1. It won't feel worshipful unless it looks like a traditional church - The person uttering this comment has a woefully unbiblical idea of worship and frankly a very, very legalistic outlook. Legalism is simply trying to produce religion on our own terms. Instead of being able to bask in the presence of God in the company of other believers--wherever that may occur--this individual won't "feel worshipful" unless they have some man-added thing to grasp.

2. People won't understand and they need a traditional looking church to be drawn in - Really? In Paul's day temples and houses of worship were all over the place, in whatever religion happened to meet your fancy. What was unheard of was the biblical idea of "church". The Gospel--and the very concept of church--is by definition countercultural. We can't build the Gospel--the emphasis is always on living it.

On on practical note, why would you spend so much money on a single use structure like a sanctuary? You will get to use it only one day a week (maybe two), and the rest of the time it sits taking up space unused. It's hard for me to imagine how that brings glory to God. Why not simply build a gym or reconvert a warehouse? You can use the space for all sorts of things: weddings, funerals, services, bible studies, basketball, fellowship dinners, outreach events---whatever you can dream of!

You can follow Pastor Josh on Twitter: Questions about faith, scripture, theology, or daily Christian living can be submitted via Email. "Faith Questions" is a feature in the newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.


  1. 1) Our son Jon went to Kenya on a missions trip when he was 15. The church there met in the open air. They had two services while he was there - one was 4 1/2 hours long and the other was 6 and NOBODY complained. Perhaps the locals need to get signed up with DirecTV so they can stop the service in time to catch football at 1pm on Sundays.

    2) The gatherings of Christians in the prisons can be very much like what I imagine the early church did. We meet wherever the authorities will let us, typically in a gym or classroom. For several years at one prison we'd meet with 4-6 guys - that was all that would come - no fancy music, no hierarchy, no "tradition." Just a small group of believers who loved their Savior and who wanted to meet for encouragement and fellowship and study.

    The sad thing was that we couldn't get volunteers to go into that prison - 90% of them wanted to go to the one down the road because they had 60-80 prisoners attending and music with 10 guitars, keyboards, drums, the whole shootin' match. All these people wanted to go see and participate in the excitement. We even had men and women REFUSE to go into the prison with the smaller group because they didn't want to miss "the show." They were the ones who truly missed out by not participating in the small, intimate fellowship available where we were going. Looking back, I had to repent of my share of grumbling about this - but I look back and see what a blessing it was for those years.

    When I see the money spent on physical plants that could be used to fund missions, etc., it boggles my mind.

  2. Yeah, but just mention that to a church in the midst of a capital campaign for a new building fund and see the reaction you get!

    The amount of money Christians spend on buildings is utterly sinful. Both on maintaining huge buildings that are empty most of the week and on servicing debt used to fund those buildings. If this young brother wants a "traditional" church meeting place, he should invite the body to his house. Protestants are, as Josh said, almost as guilty of equating the local gathering with "The Church" as Roman Catholics.

  3. Oh - I forgot - when I first saw the headline I thought YOU were the one asking the question........the gist of the post is that this other guy is a "young pastor" and you aren't. Uhhh.......look in the mirror, dude. You guys are ALL young to me.

  4. In the puritan era 36 would have made me an old man---of course the life expectancy than WAS less than 50...