A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Church Has an Edifice Complex

On Reformation Sunday it is common for many Protestant Churches to sing Martin Luther's wonderful hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God." I post a portion of those words:

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper he amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.

But I think if we in the Western Church in the 21st century were honest, we would admit that we treat our church buildings more like a mighty fortress than the God in whom we trust in all times and places and circumstance. As one of my seminary professors liked to say, when it comes to the church building itself, most Christians have an edifice complex.

It is not that our church buildings cannot serve to further the mission of Jesus Christ in our communities and the world, but we need to shift the emphasis of our ministry from the brick and mortar structure as the central location and the goal of mission to the starting point of ministry. In other words, the church building should not be the fortress where all the action is, but the outpost that sends disciples out into the community to establish more outposts that may very well take on a different character and focus on a specific ministry.

Such a perspective will see those outposts as legitimate in their own right and not significant only in how they feed the needs of the station. In other words, a church that provides campus ministry will do so because college students need ministry. If it brings them to the original outpost for Sunday morning worship, that is fine, but if the worship setting is taken out to them and furthers the cause of Jesus Christ in the world, so what if the folks back at THE church on Sunday do not see them? What if several Sunday school classes began meeting off site on Sunday morning? Perhaps at a Panera Bread or a Starbucks? Who was the person who decided that Christian education could only take place inside the walls of the "mighty fortress?"

Moreover, too many churches and their pastors operate as Lone Rangers. It is high time that pastors and congregations in the same community get together and do Christian ministry in a vital and interconnected way; and by that I mean more than simply gathering together during Lent to have community worship services. Such worship is all well and good, but much more is necessary. Individual churches need to quit trying to be all things to all people in the community and start focusing on niche ministries utilizing their gifts and graces in particular areas allowing other churches to find their niche.

For example, every church in a community operates as if they are in competition with other churches. Of course, they do not come right out and say that, but that is the net effect. Everyone wants a youth ministry complete with youth director. Instead of each church focusing on the same thing for just themselves, what if several churches got together to have a community wide or regional youth ministry? It may be too difficult at first to have such a ministry across denominational lines, but to make it relatively possible to start such a thing, the Methodists can have their own regional youth ministry while the Baptists have theirs.

What about a church that wants to concentrate on ministry to seniors? Everyone wants the youth, but let's remember that the American population is aging. Two thirds of our seniors are not connected in any kind of meaningful way to a church community. Surely there is plenty of ministry to be done there as well.

And why does worship have to happen within the confines of the church building alone? It is important that worship take place there, to be sure; but what about having alternative services off grounds-- an abandoned storefront for example? How about a worship cafe? Maybe VBS can take place at a local park?

And while there are churches that are involved in such cutting edge ministry, too many pastors and congregations continue to operate as if it is still 1957. And I think it is quite unfortunate that we refer to such ministry as "cutting edge." Jesus commanded us 2000 years ago to go out and make disciples. There should be nothing cutting edge about going into the world. Somewhere the church took a wrong turn when its emphasis in mission went from going out to bringing in. Again I am not suggesting that bringing them into the church building is unimportant, but neither is it critical. Perhaps one of the reasons that we are not bringing them in is that for too long we have not gone out.

And one more thing-- as long as the church wants to grow only in order to pay the bills; if we see new people not as persons made in the image of God who need God's transforming grace as much as the rest of us; if we only see them as instruments by which to meet the general budget, then we will have really lost what it means to be the church in the world.

Because God is our mighty fortress, the church has the confidence to be God's outpost, God's beachhead in this world for its own sake. The world does not exist for the church; the church exists for the world.


Country Parson said...

I'm working with one congregation with some serious structural problems in their church building. Several patriarch/matriarchs are convinced that its main purpose is to house the organ. On another point in your post, the interdenominational ministry in our community fell apart when its leadership made it clear that all were welcome to participate in cooperative ministry as long that ministry was conservative evangelical. That's not how it started, but it's how it ended.

John Meunier said...

Great post, Allan.

In my town, two United Methodist churches started talks about combining youth ministries because together they could do more than apart. It all fell to pieces, of course, over control issues.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Well, CP and John, both of you illustrate the difficulty. But it has been and can be done. It takes pastors and laity with the right temperament and focus.