When a Church is not a Church

You’ve all heard the rhyme:

Here is the church,
Here is the steeple,
Open the doors,
See all the people.

Reflecting on the deficient theology of this, Mark Roberts suggests an alternative:

Here is a building,
On top there’s a steeple,
Open the doors,
The church is the people!

If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve heard many criticisms like this, that “the church is not a building, it’s the people”. But I’ve always thought, its what people say in their unguarded moments that reveals what they believe deep down. It’s not what they say about church when asked to give an explaination, it’s what they say when they’re getting the kids ready for a Sunday service and rushing out the door.

15 thoughts on “When a Church is not a Church

  1. Matt,
    I agree with what you’re saying, but certainly in the West we have the problem that most people who are not part of the Church think of a church as a building. Until they enter the building and become part of the community that is that local church, it’s going to be awfully hard to help these people to think differently – even harder than to do the same for people who are already part of a local church.

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  2. Tony: I think therein lies the real problem. If people actually have to enter the building to find the church and even become a part of it, the Church has already defeated itself. Because most of us have no reason to come to the building. In fact, we may even have reasons (fair or unfair) for not doing so.
    I think that if the Church wants to survive, it needs to let go of the idea of asking people outside of it to come to them. Instead, the Church is going to have to come to those outside of it.
    But look on the bright side. At least you don’t have to drag the building with you when you do it. 😉

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  3. In Zimababwe there are people that dress up in white and fellowship under trees or at least they used to which seemed similar to Anabaptist’s fellwoship. Here in the UK, my parents have a home church started by some of us that left the Baptist church where we all congregated because of a worship war that went on for about 2 decades, so they said. Buildings are if anything a waste of resources which is something we are learning. Quite a few people on the other hand like a building where there have been decades if not centuries of worship. Also if the state church were to disestablish like they keep on threatening they would have a lot of work on their hands because it would not be that simple so they say because people who for instance after 9/11 flocked into St Peter’s (I think it was) in New York and they are probably right I am not sure only time will tell. Sweden has disestablished their state church as far as I know. Walking through town with a couple of friends a couple of years back we noticed this church that was turned into a restaurant and they all seemed sad, I think because of the decline in churches in the West and the nastalgia through which Christendom seems to keep people in bondage.

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  4. I’m not convinced that buildings are necessarily a waste of resources. If the only thing the building is being used for is to house Sunday worship service and mid-week Bible study, sure. But there are several other positive good uses that a good church could put a building towards.
    As just one example, a number of churches here in Rochester NY are active in RAIHN. As part of their participation, these churches will host a temporarily homeless/displaced family for one week each month. At least one of these churches chooses to host the family in the church building itself during their week. I’d say that’s quite a good use of the building. And havng a building opens up other opportunities to offer community-oriented services.
    As someone who grew up in a church that wasted its building (we won’t go into the fact that they spent $2000 to remodel the kitchen then did absolutely nothing with it for the following five years), I do understand how wasteful it a building can be at times. And I certainly think some churches would be better off focusing their finances and energies in other directions. But I wouldn’t generalize that to say that buildings are always a waste or even that they’re never useful. That’s just tossing the baby out with the bathwater, as they say.

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  5. I think Jarred is right, if people have to enter the building to find the church then the church has already defeated itself. Christians have to learn to be the church, to visibly be the church, in the wider world.
    A question I had for fellow leaders in our church recently was this: how can we be a blessing to our community? I asked this because I want to encourage the church to think beyond the walls, to think of themselves as being sent for something bigger than the building.
    Buildings are not necessarily as waste of resources, but they’re not necessarily as effective use of resources either. I strive for a certain ambivalence. The more important question is: what do we need resources for?

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  6. Oh I do agree with you. Generalizations are dangerous including that one. lol. Though my experience is more to do with not using buildings to their full potential obvioiusly as your posts both indicate. I just remember someone saying that we didnt have to pay rent/bills anymore for a building after we left. When we went to the Baptist church a little while back, there was this extra space right next door to it that we used to use for all sorts of things such as a youth group centre, etc, but nothing as extravagant as housing a poor family or anything. I am still fond of Baptists though. Most of my best friends are Baptists especially those I know in the Anabaptist circles.

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  7. Sorry last one for now. This was about 5 years ago and they are still trying to sell it. the building also housed our pastor’s office. We have since moved from there (we used to live about a stone throw away from the church) and well I hav’nt seen any of the other church members in years. It is quite a pity.

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  8. Well, i think that the buildings are idolized just like the Bible can be/has been. For instance, walk into a parish church here and it is like you have walked on holy ground because you have plaques facing out (the first thing you see when you wak in through the door) saying anything from do not make noise this is the House of God to this is a sacred place/holy ground. I think they are equating the church building with the Temple being the only place that people can worship in the Hebrew Bible and NT, thereby nullifying Jesus and all what He has done to destroy the religious monopoly over worship and where people worship creating an antireligion.

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  9. Jarred – I agree with your point, but as pastor of a church with no building we face a different problem. There’s no shortage of buildings that we can try and get access to to host our events, but the events become associated with the building and not with us as a church community.
    Also, where we are there’s a real reluctance both to invite people we don’t know into our homes, or to enter the home of people we don’t know yet.
    That said, one of the hardest aspects of ministry is trying to persuade the church people to go out from our Christian community to take the gospel message into the communities around us, by word and deed.

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  10. Tony, thanks for your perspective. You’ve now got me thinking of non-Christian groups I know. I’ve known some neo-pagan groups that met in houses, pubs and atop lonely hills. It didn’t seem to be an issue for them. I wonder if its just that people have more ingrained expectations when it comes to Christianity?

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  11. I think that only when the church becomes a movement for good in the world will we ever be able to change our culture’s presumption that a church is a building! That is why I appreciate faith communities that don’t call themselves “so and so” church. One example i think is: Mosaic: a community of faith, love and hope. Not Mosaic Church. This is a small thing, but if we want to change our image it will take small things like what we name communities to big things like being a movement for the good of the cosmos!

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  12. Hi Matt I hav’nt been on for a couple of days so I thought I would comment on your comment Posted by: Matt Stone | Aug 08, 2009 at 04:41 PM.
    I was in London in the Chapel near Westminster Abbey, which is where I think the Queen had her coronation ceremony, and is the place where I saw that plaque on the wall that says “…This is the house of the Lord….”

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