Back in 2013-14 we had the joy and challenge of spending a little over a year language learning in France. The challenge was mostly the language learning and the joy was mostly France. I really love France, a beautiful country full of nature and history. I was able to visit Paris once during this time and was struck by the magnificence of the city. One building that stuck out in particular was the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The building is immense and beautiful, drawing one’s eyes up to heaven and causing the heart to glorify God.
The sad, stark contrast between such church buildings and the state of the Church in Europe is as depressing as the buildings are beautiful. Most of these historic churches have been converted to museums and monuments, or even homes and bars. For many in France, the Notre Dame is a significant historical site, without relevance to modern thought or life. And yet, this mostly secular nation raised over $1 Billion dollars to restore the Notre Dame when it caught on fire in 2019.
While I love the Notre Dame, this figure really through me for a loop. $1 Billion! But then, in reality, this money is being used not to rebuild a church, but to rebuild a tourist attraction. This and other events have caused me, in recent months, to think about what the “church” really is. I have come to conclude that over time, we Christians have developed a blind spot in regard to our own church buildings and have in fact allowed ourselves to become distracted. So, here are a few thoughts and warnings as it comes to church buildings.
The Church is the People
Have you ever heard of semantic drift? Semantic drift is when the meaning of a word changes over time, sometimes coming to mean something completely different than its original meaning. The word “church” has changed in its meaning over time. Now, in every country I have lived in, the word “church” primarily refers to a building. In fact, when I hear people translating into Kwakum on Sundays, whenever the word French word for church (église) is mentioned, they translate it as “itoo misɔn” which means “church house.”
The “drift” here is in that the Greek word ekklesia that we often translate as “church” actually means “called out ones” or “assembly.” In the Bible, the word ekklesia never refers to a building or place. Semantic drift is fine, it happens a lot. However, in this case I think it is indicative of a change in our understanding. We have begun thinking about church as being inextricably united to a particular place and building. I once attended a church in CO that met in a park. I have to admit, for me, it didn’t really feel like “church” because we were not in a building.
While it is ok for us to use the English word “church” to refer both to a building and a group of people, it is not ok for us to think that you need a building to have a church. And in fact, I think that we tend to allow our buildings to monopolize too much of our time and resources.
Buildings Monopolize Time, Money, and our Thoughts
Not too long ago we had a prayer meeting with a group of Kwakum people. Each of these individuals regularly attends a church, and most of them are involved in leadership. During this prayer time we asked for some specific requests in regard to each of their churches. Probably about 90% of the requests dealt with earthly, physical issues: buildings, roofs, pews, etc. All of the needs expressed were valid. But I wonder if we should be spending 90% of our prayer times focusing on such things.
I haven’t only observed this trend in Cameroon though. From time to time, we get emails from people letting us know that they will have to cancel their support of our ministry for various reasons. I am SO thankful for these emails as they help us to understand the circumstances of our supporters and to pray for them. On a couple occasions, we have had people cancel support because their church was doing a building project and they had committed a monthly amount. Since they were on a strict budget, they had to cut where they could.
Without any judgment on my part (maybe these families supported 20 other missionaries), I just want to ask if this is where we as a Church want to place our priorities? If you were the pastor of the church in question, would you encourage your people to stop supporting missionaries in order to support your building project? I have been in several churches where there was no line-item for missions in their budget. I have never been in a church, however that did not have a line-item for a building or building maintenance.
I am not saying that they do not have good reasons for wanting and building buildings, however, it seems to me that we are often distracted. For several years, our church in the village was nothing more than a thatch roof held up by some wooden posts. And we were able to worship God every week with joy! Replacing the thatch every few months was annoying, but for the most part, we did not think about the church “building” at all other than at those times. Now that we have a building, our church has a monthly offering for the “building fund.” This is for repairs, improvements, and expansions. Yes, it is nice to have a building, but that building is a tyrant, always pushing its way into our thoughts, prayers, and wallets.
Without condemning the idea of us having a building, I am suggesting that it may be time for us to do a better cost-benefit analysis.
The Building Will Burn
Between all of our supporting churches in the last 10 years, tens of millions of dollars have been spent on buildings (not including maintenance). These churches have also faithfully supported ours and other ministries around the globe, and we are thankful. One pastor, in fact, told me when they were starting a new building fundraiser, “We are building so that we can send out more missionaries.”
While I certainly believe that this was his intent, I would like to go back now and ask him if it worked. Is there a way to quantify if this mission was successful? In what ways has this building resulted in more people going to the mission field?
In the case that this can be defended, and the end result was what the pastor hoped… awesome! However, I think we need to keep in mind that a building cannot and should not be our main goal. Why? Because one day Jesus is going to come with a sword coming out of his mouth and he is going to burn down all of our church buildings. The fire at Notre Dame is just a foretaste. Jesus will one day burn all of our pews and flying buttresses and stained glass.
And honestly, it might come sooner than that. As I was processing all of these thoughts, I received an email with the following request from Ethiopia:
After Muslim mobs destroyed 12 churches in the Alaba zone in 2019, believers waiting for their churches to be rebuilt report an increased dedication to missions and outreach in their communities. In a single day, extremists moved through the town of Alaba Kulito and destroyed 12 church buildings. Two years later, church leaders and evangelists now report that their congregations are more motivated than ever to share the gospel with their persecutors. One congregation sent five evangelists to an unreached people group. Another evangelist reported that more people responded to the gospel message in the previous two months than in six months of previous work. “The persecution has awakened the churches for missions. We were prioritizing buildings, furnishing them and buying other materials. But now our number one priority is missions,” one of the church elders said. “After the persecution we haven’t raised funds for church buildings and other materials but for missions.” Praise God for the attitude of the believers and pray for changed hearts as a result of their efforts.
What an amazing testimony! These churches have suffered, lost their buildings, and probably live in fear of future attacks. However, they see the destruction of their buildings as a blessing. This testimony reminded me of Hebrews 10:34, where the author commends the recipients saying: “you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
I write all of this just to throw out an idea: maybe a building will not help you as much as you think it will. Maybe that new building project is not worth it. Maybe cramming together in a hot, uncomfortable building could actually strengthen your church. Maybe it would be better to have one of your pastors break off into a separate local church, rather than building a bigger building. Maybe there is a better use of the millions of dollars.
Maybe not, maybe building is the best use of your time and resources. But I think it is worth consideration. And at the end of the day, whether we have a building, are building a building, or have lost our building, I pray that we might grow to be like our Ethiopian brethren. I pray that our buildings (or lack thereof) would not distract us from our better and abiding possession.