In 2008, Baileyton United Methodist Church was a total loss after a fire swept through the building. The historic building was over 100 years old with stained glass windows and a modest bell tower. Truly the architecture was of an era gone by.
A year following the fire, I was introduced to a member of that congregation. I expected to hear lamentations concerning the loss of the structure. Instead the member relayed with great excitement all the “new things” that could be done in worship. At that time, the church met in a school every Sunday morning. And the church leader made a surprising discovery: the building had actually barricaded the church’s imagination of what could be.
Jesus encounters his disciples and their barricaded imagination in Mark 13. His disciples are marveling about the Temple, through which they strolled. And who would not be taken back? The historian Josephus writes that the rising sun reflected off the gold in such a way, observers were forced to look away. Beyond a physical standing, the Temple also gave a sense of identity and security. Surely we Jews are blessed by the right hand of God to have such a place of worship. And surely God would never abandon such a beautiful house. Therefore God must be on their side, no matter what. That attitude represents a barricaded mind.
Jesus shakes his followers up by speaking of the end times. He assures them that this splendor before them will be a pile of rubble. This comes to pass; first spiritually and then physically. Jesus will suffer at the hands of those who oversee this building. But God’s work of resurrection through the Christ will make the Temple obsolete, or a pile of rubble. Jesus had a larger vision and it did not include a physical building. This larger vision Jesus has causes me to pause and consider church buildings and property today.
In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, the writer gives us an insight into God’s view of property. In chapter 21 the writer sees a new city, decorated by God. A visual of verse 18 reveals that God is not interested in a minimalist décor. Rather, this new city is decked out with precious jewels of every variety. Scholars believe this array of precious stones represent nations of the world and God’s desire that all ethnicities become part of the final kingdom.
So cancel that globe chandelier you had ordered for the fellowship hall….or your dining room.
God’s vision does not include a physical building. God’s dream is that every skin color and tongue becomes woven together in a heavenly tapestry, representing God’s desire to dwell among us and in us. Our physical buildings that hold such precious memories and history can keep the people of God from becoming that tapestry for God on this earth.
God’s kingdom focuses more on inhabitants instead of the habitation. Then why don’t we do the same?
First let us begin with the inhabitants of the church building. If you attend or lead a church, take out a sheet of paper. On one side list all the ministries that take place in your church building on a regular basis. Now check anything that could take place in a home or a rented space. Unchecked on the sheet of paper would be ministries that truly use the building: weekly soup kitchen, after school tutoring program, AA meetings and the like. These programs need a public place to meet or they use the church kitchen, showers, gyms and so on. They need the building and it’s amenities. Notice these ministries are usually outreach and service oriented. Most things the church does for edification that is frequented by “the regulars” (Bible studies, prayer groups, leadership meetings) can usually be done elsewhere.
I’m making that point to get to this thought. If your church has a check marked list (meaning everything listed has a check next to it), then the building may be a great hindrance to the goal of representing God’s love to the world. My guess is that your checked list may represent attendees that are all the same skin color and background and maybe even the same age group. If this is the case, humor me with my next step.
Find a copy of the church budget. Add up the portion of the budget for building upkeep, loan repayment and insurance. Take a moment and reflect on the % in comparison with the total budget. (WARNING: This may bring tears.)
Now get on the phone and call the local moose lodge or community center and inquire about rental prices for Sunday mornings. Find an office rental space (if your church has an office) and get that cost. Subtract the moose lodge rental price and office space price from the building upkeep bottom line. The total amount from that simple act of subtraction is how much money one could invest in new ministries! Not to mention the money from the sale of the building. (To offset the tears, take a moment and DREAM!)
The United Methodist Church has just been told that if we continue doing business as usual we will die. A special study labeled us “unsustainable”. Currently, my United Methodist conference has an interest in starting new churches. Some of those funds come from the sale of abandoned church properties. Good idea.
But here is a bold idea. Since we are charted to die anyway, why not do anything except business as usual? What if Bishops sent word out to the churches that any church that was willing to sell the building and become
spiritual nomads could receive grant money? The church leadership would make a presentation to the hierarchy, much like a business proposal one would make for a bank loan. Of course the church leadership and hierarchy would strike a deal that would be Biblically sound. New ideas for ministry would emerge as the millstone of a building is lifted. The possibilities would excite any Christian wanting to represent God’s love to the community and beyond.
As word spread throughout the conference and national United Methodist circles, leaders and churches would be witness to boldness and risk taking. If it paid off (and I think it would, providing the right church chose this option), leadership throughout the nation would have to re-think ministry and perhaps dare to follow.
I wonder if the way to revitalize this denomination is for some churches to become spiritual nomads. This
would not work for every church. But I have a feeling that God would rejoice at the rubble we have left behind and bless our boundless imagination.