Tom Arthur: To have a church building or not?

Do bricks and mortar help or hinder mission?

In the ancient church, a young monk would approach an elder and ask, 'Abba may I have a word?' Tom Arthur, in his first year out of seminary, seeks advice from elders in these letters. Brad Kalajainen's reply is here.

Dear Brad Kalajainen,

I’ve worshiped in a lot of different church buildings in my life. Buildings seem to run the gamut. The two internships I had in seminary show the extremes.

One summer I served at Reveille United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Reveille is a very large and mostly traditional church. The sanctuary had a kind of 1950’s mainline feel to it with some cathedral aspirations. Huge columns line the aisles on either side of the long and narrow sanctuary. The front of the church has several marble steps leading up to an altar on the back wall. The pulpit soars high above the congregation, and to preach in it, one should practice ahead of time walking up and down the narrow steps while holding the “skirts” of one’s robe so as not to trip. The rest of the building is full of classrooms for adults and children. The church was built on what was once a plantation and the offices are in the plantation house. It’s a thriving church.

My second internship was at a small country church in rural North Carolina: Efland United Methodist Church, a thriving small rural church. In a village of 700 people, there are 100-120 people in church on Sunday morning. If only every church had that same percentage of its town’s population! The church is mostly one room although there is a choir room and office on the back of the sanctuary. The church also owns a house that sits behind the church building and a fellowship hall across the street. It is the kind of sanctuary many brides want to be photographed in as they leave the picturesque country church.

Given the variety in church buildings, I did not know what to expect in my first appointment. I did expect to have a building. Much to my surprise, I was appointed to an eight-year-old church plant that does not. Our church worships in a school “cafetorium.” We rent office space. The church just bought a parsonage – our first piece of owned property.

As you can imagine, the amount of work that it takes to be a “nomadic” church is considerable. We unpack and pack up our “church” from a small closet in the school every Sunday morning. A crew of people shows up at 7 AM and we’re there until 1:30 PM most Sundays. We have great zeal for the mission of our church to reach out to people in our community. But after eight years of unpacking and packing our church, we’re tired of it.

Going into my sixth month at Sycamore Creek Church, I’ve now been in several conversations about whether we are going to build a building or not.

There seems to be two ideological camps in the literature. One camp believes that not have a building is an asset toward greater mission. A church is able to focus on mission rather than bricks. The other camp believes that a building provides a church with a base from which to do mission. Our church has been influenced by both schools of thought.

So here’s my question: can a church thrive in the Midwest without a building? If so, what does it look like? If not, what must we as a church do not to lose the mission in the bricks and mortar? What counsel would you give someone in my position beginning the process of helping a church to build?

Peace,

Tom Arthur