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Church . . . More than Brick and Mortar

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What do we really mean when we say church? Is it a building, a people, an experience? As mentioned in part six of this series, simple questions about what church is and what church is for can lead to a maelstrom of divisive debate. (See also "We Are the Church . . . Together?") Church: How did this simple term get turned into such a complicated concept?

Church -- The Building

Sometimes we speak of church -- the building. It is the designated place we gather to worship, fellowship, learn, weep, and celebrate corporately as God's people. At times, buildings can become the all-consuming center of a congregation's financial concerns. How many once-useful facilities morph into budget-devouring ogres?

In Change the World, "Chapter Six: Mission vs. Mortar," Michael Slaughter urges congregations to examine their budgets to determine where the financial priorities are. He offers this evaluative process: Divide the budget into four categories:

  • Mortar (costs of facility upkeep)
  • Ministry/Discipleship (costs of ministry within the facility)
  • Mission (costs of providing ministry for folks outside the walls of your facility)
  • Administration.

By using these categories, a congregation can assess the percentage of resources devoted to maintenance versus mission and ministry.

Too many congregations continue to feed the ogre, somehow believing that others will be attracted to the building full of memories cherished by members who still remember the church's golden years. Such sentiment-driven belief presumes that a building is the most essential requisite for church growth. This thinking ignores the following historical fact:

"Christians did not begin to build church buildings until about AD 200... Whatever else church buildings are good for, they are not essential either for numerical growth or spiritual depth." (Howard Snyder, Radical Renewal: The Problem of Wineskins Today)

When congregations ask, "How can we get more people to COME to our church?" they view the church primarily as a "come-structure" rather than as a "go-structure." This attractional approach to church growth is very building dependent.

Church -- The People

Early use of the term ecclesia (church) did not refer to a building. Instead, Slaughter notes, ecclesia referred to "the community that Jesus summoned forth to bear witness to the gospel and serve Jesus's mission in the world."

When congregations understand that people summoned by Christ to bear witness are the church, building dependency can diminish. People are mobile. People can go out to reach others where they are.

To develop a positive reputation outside the church facility, the people must go out and engage other people in some meaningful ways. Consider the following example.

Rudy and Juanita Rasmus, pastors of St. John's Downtown UMC in Houston, Texas, began with a handful of people and a goal of serving hurting people. After much prayer, they gathered a group of volunteers and renovated the former parsonage. They designed it to serve the homeless, hungry, and unemployed people who lived on the streets around the church facility.

Furthermore, they decided to "demystify" the sanctuary so that the homeless would feel at ease coming into that space. They began the feeding ministry in the sanctuary.

The feeding ministry, called Bread of Life, has expanded. The homeless can wash and dry their clothes in the Bread of Life laundry. Health-care professionals offer basic health services, and group counseling is available for recovery from addiction. This church has a positive reputation in the community.

Encouraging people to "come" to church must be preceded by Christian disciples going "out" to engage the world with the love of Jesus Christ. What is your local church willing to do?

Church -- The Experience

What do you mean when you say "church"? Different cultures assign church different connotative meanings. Consider the following example.

Congregations in transitioning neighborhoods often express the desire to invite people from the community to church. But what will happen if they come?

For example, let us presume that a historic Anglo church with dwindling membership is located in a transitioning neighborhood populated primarily by working-class African Americans and Latinos. In addition to being the place for spiritual and moral instruction, "church" -- for marginalized people -- historically has been a safe haven from oppression, a strategic planning center, an economic empowerment office, and a social gathering place. Even if a marginalized person did not attend church, he or she embraced some definition of what church stood for in his or her community.

For African Americans, church historically was the place where it was all right to release pent-up emotions through spirited singing, shouting, and movement. It was the place to critique the unjust practices in government, law, and business. The Bible was clearly the first point of reference for directing personal conduct and moral guidance. People acknowledged that going to church carried with it the expectation to "get right with God and treat everybody right."

There was a clear understanding of how coming to church influenced your being and doing.

Whether referring to church as a building, people, or experience, keep the focus on ministry and mission for Christ.

Next Steps

  1. Read Chapter Six, "Mission vs Mortar," in Change the World by Michael Slaughter and prepare a budget organized into the four categories mentioned in the chapter: Mortar (building), Mission (ministry outside the church building), Ministry/Discipleship (ministry within the church building), and Administration.
  2. Discuss the Reflection Questions at the end of Chapter Six, "Mission vs Mortar," with key leaders in your congregation. Afterward determine what actions the church should take regarding effective building usage and budgeting missionally.
  3. What priorities would your budget suggest to a nonmember of your church?
  4. Identify at least one missional ministry to focus on either locally or overseas. Encourage your congregation to come up with creative ways to participate in this ministry from giving financially or materially to personal involvement and relationship building with the people.