Church: Christ's Body or Building

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 I invite you to ponder with me the complex relationship between a congregation’s ministry and their facilities in this and the next three CT Blog entries.  Over the last six years, I have repeatedly heard congregational leaders talk about looking for, planning for, paying for, cherishing, being blessed by, being controlled by, maintaining, struggling to afford, hoping to move from and idolizing their facilities.  That this is a strange and sometimes strained relationship is evident in the confusing way we use the word “church.”  The Bible refers to those who follow Jesus as the “church,” the Body of Christ.  But when we say that we are “going to church” or “look at that church” we are probably referring not to a gathering of disciples, but to the congregation’s facilities.  Now, how did this happen?

Recently, I was reading Frank Viola and George Barna’s book, Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices.  They remind us that for almost 300 years, the first generations of Christians built no dedicated buildings.  Christians met in homes, almost exclusively, and were the first non-temple-based major religion ever to emerge.  Meeting in homes seemed to fit the faith communities that turned the ancient world upside down for Christ.  Archeologist have found the earliest evidence of a home that they believe was customized around 232 AD to enable up to 70 people to meet in it. 

It wasn’t until Emperor Constantine, needing some glue to hold things together, took Eusebius’ advice and made Christianity the official religion of the so-called Holy Roman Empire.  After his mother, Helena, took her first pilgrimage to Palestine in 326, Constantine began using his imperial coffers to erect church buildings.  After all, you couldn’t have Rome’s official religion housed in homes – it just wouldn’t be . . . imperial.   And so shortly thereafter, instead of referring exclusively to a community of called-out believers gathered around Christ, ecclesia (church) began to refer to mortar-and-bricks structures where believers gathered for worship.  When Christians jumped on the back of the Roman bear and yelled, “Gotcha!” it was questionable just who got whom.  According to Viola and Barna, among the variety of infections Christians caught from the bear was the ‘edifice complex.’ 

As we move into what is being called the post-Christendom, post-modern era, many of us still have such a “Constantinian hangover” that we can hardly imagine a congregation that isn’t saddled with a mortgage and maintenance costs for land and buildings.  Doesn’t it seem odd, suggests Viola and Barna, that a large percentage of many congregations’ budget is designated to something which congregations in the first three hundred years of Christianity didn’t even consider having?  When I first read this, my assumptions about church facilities were challenged in a way that helped me begin to at least wonder how we might address some of our current challenges differently. 

The cost of building, using, insuring and maintaining facilities continues to escalate.  Many congregations find themselves in declining facilities designed for ministries that no longer fit our time.  Many facilities are no longer located in the most strategic places for reaching people today.  In some communities, once large Anglo congregations are struggling to maintain aging facilities now much too large for them, while growing ethnic congregations are unable to afford adequate facilities.   No one really believes that congregations are in the real estate business, but sometimes caring for our real estate is eclipsing our real business: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In the next three CT Blog entries, I want to share with you six questions and invite you to ponder with me the relationship of our congregations’ ministries and facilities.   Remember: during the time when Christianity was growing most rapidly and with the most spiritual fervor they built and maintained no buildings.   This may just give us all the distance we need to imagine fresh ways for our connection to address our facility needs for today’s ministry.

Dr. Jeff Stiggins
Office of Congregational Transformation

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