Monday, February 29, 2016

Church buildings

Some churches own buildings.  Some do not.  The church of which I have been a member for the past decade owns a building which is too small for its congregation; it would like a larger building.  The church of which I have just become a member does not own a building at all, and does not particularly aspire to own one; we might not take one if it were offered for free (although we might - if you have a building going free, let me know, and we'll see...)

It's all just irrelevant, right?  Just a matter of preference and pragmatics.  Certainly I've never really read anything discussing the theological or ecclesiological importance of church property (except in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1179-1186; it is the usual quasi-sacramental stuff that characterises much Roman theology).

Except buildings become symbols, and symbols take on significance they may not have had in original intention.  Because church buildings are not particularly gospel things, they are also not particularly controlled when it comes to their symbolism.  Being a long way from the heart of the Christian faith and its practice, they can take on different meanings very easily; they are not tied closely to any particular interpretation of the faith.  So a building could become a fortress; in here we are safe, in here it is holy, in here the world will not get us.  Or it could become a temple; in here God is present, in here God is working, in here prayers are heard.  Both of these would be very unhelpful symbolism.

I would guess that the most useful symbolism you could apply to a church building would be that of an embassy.  An embassy is the sovereign soil of another country, and so in a way the church building, by dedicating a particular portion of the Earth to the service of God, becomes an embassy of heaven.  It is a strange embassy in one sense, because part of its central message is that this ambassadorial role is temporary; there will come a day when all of the Earth will be similarly consecrated.  As such, the church building can have a prophetic role.  Like an embassy, it can also aim to display something of the kingdom it represents.  Obviously that will mainly happen through the people who gather there, but it can also happen through the architecture, the liturgy, the sheer ambience of the place - and, given that we have a Servant King, perhaps also the regularity with which the building is available to others to use.

Of course people in the church will only think of the church building that way if the general culture of the church leans in that direction.  It is easy for error to creep in here, and I wonder whether the way that church members think about their building might be a good indicator of how sound their grasp of the gospel is overall...

One thing I have seen a lot of recently is the idea that the church building is inherently detrimental to mission.  If we have a building, people say, church members will start to feel disconnected from the wider community; they will start to think that evangelism just means inviting people in on to our territory and not going out on to theirs.  Well, to this I can only say pish, and perhaps also tosh.  It is true that people might start to feel that way, but it will not be the building that makes it happen; it will be the preaching and teaching, or lack thereof.  Moreover, where do you think the congregation are for the 90% of their lives when they are not in the church building?  They are scattered, hopefully being salt and light in all of the places God sends them.  I'd also like to ask whether it might not work the other way around - whether lacking a church building might not symbolise a total lack of boundaries and distinction between the church and the world..?  Mightn't it?

Some churches have a building.  Some don't.  It doesn't really matter, although there might be important reasons why at a particular moment in a church's life a building will be a huge blessing or a great liability.  What really matters is what sort of symbol we allow it to become, and to what extent we see it in the light of the gospel.


  1. I'm ambivalent about church buildings. Our urban and rural landscapes would be poorer without all those old stone churches but they represent a huge burden on time and finances to maintain them. As a musician it is a pleasure to be able to roll up on a Sunday and have the sound system ready to turn on and that goes for a wide range of other parts of the service too; I've seen churches that rent space setting up and know that this also has a significant cost of time as well as money.

    Taking a step back, might it be reasonable to observe that any set up that facilitates the gathering of a congregation and the interaction of communities is caught between the kingdom has come and the kingdom is coming? Any solution will involve a measure of pain, tension, friction and waste because when we are living is not quite fully right. Our facilities are just tools; they won't, of themselves, do the work that is set before us.

    1. Yes, I'm sure that's right - caught in eschatological tension. Having been on a setup team for some years, I can say there are definitely some practical advantages to having a building!

  2. Anonymous1:28 pm

    Interesting article, having been part of a C of E church with its large stone building for almost the first 30 years of my life and a church plant without a building for just over 3 (although the church plant was started 5-6 years ago).

    I would agree with Wulf in that I am ambivalent to the building generally and so might take a more practical view, rather than your primarily theological view.

    The church plant has already met at three different venues within the town during that time - a C of E church (not my original one), a URC church and now a community centre within a large estate that is where it is intended to stay longer-term. So the lack of a building does give some flexibility with the central focus of each move being where the church could be best based to reach others!

    The lack of a building means a lack of risk of having to spend money on unexpected repairs although equally, particularly given the way our culture is moving, the (hopefully small) risk we could get refused permission to hire our venue in the future.

    My original C of E church has recently started a project to restore and update the church, covering essential maintenance and making the inside space more practical and flexible for a modern day church (e.g. movable seats rather than pews). The cost was originally estimated at £1.5m, rose to £2m and the work is now being scaled back to reduce this! There have also inevitably been complaints from locals who never use the church about the changes to the interior.

    So overall I think I'm happy as part of a church that doesn't own a building, although I can see that there are pros and cons both ways. I think the extra set-up time is a small price to pay for having more flexibility and less unexpected costs. If the church were to have a building, I would much rather it be a modern one (e.g. some of the New Frontiers warehouse ones) that is fit for purpose though - it'll be interesting to see how the C of E copes with declining numbers supporting their old buildings over the coming years!

    1. An interesting perspective. I wonder whether sometimes flexibility can be a liability - for example, the church might not see itself as rooted in a particular area, or as having responsibility to witness to a particular area. My own sense is that this is rather important. But of course, as with most things, flexibility can also be a huge bonus - and theologically can remind us that we are not 'at home' here.

      I have to say, I do think the hassle of set up is pretty big. It's not just the work of having to do it, it's also the fact that stuff doesn't quite work - especially when you're dealing with PA equipment, for example. In a fixed location you can have a fixed system, rather than having to put it together each week and finding out in the middle of the service that something isn't quite right.

      I have to say, I rather loathe the warehouse-type church buildings. To me they seem to communicate something of a utilitarian God, a God who isn't that interested in the aesthetic. Of course, so do some of the plain little 19th century chapels. I'd love to do some thinking about theology and architecture at some point.