Posted by: Titus Presler | June 14, 2010

Church buildings can catalyze mission engagement – a reflection

It has become commonplace to view buildings as a hindrance to the church’s participation in God’s mission in the world.  After all, God’s Holy Spirit moves where she wills, whereas bricks and mortar entrench Christian communities in fixed places, from where they find it difficult to move.  Great church edifices built in past centuries are difficult to maintain now that laborers and artisans receive fair and just compensation for their work.  The congregations that once filled many such churches are shadows of their former selves and now find it difficult to keep them up.  We grieve how financial resources that should directly strengthen mission work in the world are diverted to costly maintenance of buildings.

In sum, the frequently noted tension between maintenance and mission finds literal fulfillment when maintenance means building maintenance.

Tension between buildings and mission arises, as well, in connection with demographic shifts in neighborhoods.  This topic came up in a conversation I had with George Woodward, rector of St. Edmund’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles at the June 2010 annual conference of the Episcopal Church’s two major mission networks, the Episcopal Partnership for Global Mission and the Global Episcopal Mission Network.

George was noting how the especially rapid demographic shifts in neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area pose particular challenges for Christian congregations.  Say a congregation was established with an Anglo constituency in a traditionally Anglo neighborhood, and then over a couple of decades the neighborhood became mostly Hispanic and then Asian.  Or a congregation born in an African American neighborhood might find that the neighborhood is becoming Vietnamese and then maybe Brazilian.  Issues of viability arise as the traditional constituency dwindles, but tension builds because church members are attached to their building and do not wish to move.

I noted the interesting contrast provided by new indigenous churches in Africa that not only do not have church buildings but are theologically opposed to having church buildings.  They point out, for instance, that in the Old Testament God professed not to need a house because the entire creation was sufficient habitation.  Such churches meet under trees, in fields, beside streams and rivers.  Then, when demographic shifts occur as a result of economic conditions or civil conflict, the congregation is free to move and set up elsewhere.  There is no land or building to be sold, no favorite stained glass window to preserve, no mortgage to settle.

Also, however, there is no necessary missional boundary that must be crossed, and that’s the missional downside of the possession-free congregation.  It is free to remain just as insular as it wishes, content with the ethnic and socio-economic character of its existing membership.  In the USAmerican situation, the Anglo or Korean or Brazilian congregation that rents space in a storefront or school and then finds that its constituency is moving to a suburb or a different neighborhood can nimbly start renting out there.  It will be glad that “we” are still together, that the existing community is still intact and can continue without disturbance.

Conversely, the missional upside of having a church building is that its congregation must reach out to difference in order to flourish.  It must be alive to the changing demographics of its neighborhood and constantly discern how God may be leading it to relate, understand and embrace the new contours of local diversity.  Since mission as I define it is ministry in the dimension of difference, it becomes clear that having a church building can catalyze activist missional engagement of the best kind.  A building may actually keep a congregation on a fresh and creative missional edge.

This missional edge resonates with other missional aspects of church buildings.  Many religions have physical structures, of course, but, for Christians, houses of worship cohere with the incarnational heart of our faith.  We are committed to the real world and its problems, and that draws us naturally into sanctifying space and place.  A congregational building signifies commitment to being part of a particular space-time community.  It signifies depth of commitment over time.  It is a visible and public sign of a congregation’s settled intention to be a place of encounter with God and neighbor, an intersection of the vertical with the horizontal in a particular geography on God’s good earth.

Human fear and hostility being what they are, it can and does often work out quite otherwise, of course.  A dwindling congregation may fear and resist even encountering the other who is different, let alone embracing a new community.  It may nevertheless cling to its precious church building until the congregation must literally disband.  We have all seen this happen, for it is sadly common.  However, that is not because church buildings are intrinsically incompatible with mission but because a particular group of people resisted God’s call to be on mission.

In biblical defense of buildings, one can point out that God ultimately endorsed construction of a temple in Jerusalem, and clearly the temple was important to Jesus in planning the geography of his ministry.  There are likewise indications that the Jerusalem temple was important to the earliest church.  It is striking that Paul visited synagogues whenever he could throughout the Mediterranean world.  As a persecuted movement, Christians of the first three centuries did not build churches, but they began to do so as soon as they could.  In other words, there is no theological or historical warrant for demonizing church buildings as inimical to mission.

Nor are the various considerations neatly bifurcated.  Some genuinely missional congregations may move for genuinely missional reasons.  The point is simply that it is helpful to recognize that buildings are not in themselves obstacles to mission.  They actually have the potential to catalyze mission vision and engagement.



  1. I read this piece to the Christ Church Seattle vestry on 5/10/11 as part of our devotions. We are a typical Global North church in most of the ways that you note: begrudging every dollar spent on physical plant when our program budgets have been slashed and our clergy salaries frozen because of recession hardship. Yet there is a tired feel to the place; it is not as diverse or as outreach-oriented as its busy, urban university district location would suggest. I think you have put your finger on the malaise. It stimulated an animated discussion.

    • Great to hear from you, Ann, and thanks for this comment. I’m glad the reflection stimulated discussion for a group facing some of the classic issues of maintenance and mission. The principal’s residence at Edwardes College here in Peshawar is a truly venerable structure built in classic Northwest Frontier style sometime in the first half of the 19th century, so very old for residences hereabouts, though obviously not so old in comparison with Mogul-period mosques. I don’t know its exact date, but we do know that the Church Missionary Society bought it in 1855 as its mission house-headquarters for this region. Thus long before it was a principal’s house, the college not being established until 1900, it was the directing point for the vastly influential work of CMS in this region. Then in 1888 a small chapel was constructed that shares a wall and verandah with the rest of the house. It is a solid but humble little place. There doubtless the mission workers and their Indian/Pashtun/Afghan partners held regular worship. I’m not sure when CMS departed the house entirely, but my guess is that in the first decade of the 20th century the chapel became substantially a college chapel. The enclosure itself accommodates only about 30 people comfortably, but for services attendees pack in and then fill up the entire verandah. Given the environment of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa today, that is a moving scene. In light of the history, the current setting and the work of Edwardes College, you can imagine that I already have a certain depth of feeling attached to this chapel!

  2. The above reflection is quite provocative for mission in our own time. I would like to respond by saying that my experience here in South Africa has demonstrated the importance of church buildings in any community. In fact, in our attempts to reach out to the unconverted, the question of our place of worship has been been critical. In some places, the cold weather causes problems if people have to worship under a tree or tent. When people are proud of owning a home as a family, surely one of their greatest aspirations would be a house for God as well among them. In my current Parish, the building has been a major source of inspiration. My Congregation takes pride in the fact that not a single cent was spent on erecting the current Church building. Their parents and grandparents did the building, volunteering their time and resources. Thant makes it a real community Church. Right now the members are engaging in re-fencing the yard and they do not need anyone to do it for them. They will do like what their parents and grandparents did. Indeed the Church building has become a source of asserting their identity as Christians in the neighbourhood. The secret is simply to keep those doors open for those who seek after God.

    • Thanks for the comment, Thomas. Yes, church buildings tend to be important for mission-founded churches in southern Africa. Although I pointed out that some African-initiated churches eschew buildings, there are many others for whom church buildings are just as important as they are for MFCs. As you note, rain and cold constitute major practical rationales for church buildings. However, there is a church group in the USA – one of the those that has “Church of Christ” prominently in its name – that “does not believe in buildings” and therefore meets in homes, which takes care of the issue of inclement weather, though it also limits the numbers that can gather at any one time. Also as you point out, identifiable church buildings can assist in evangelism and other forms of outreach. Why, though? Rightly or wrongly, people often feel that construction and care of a church building credentials a congregation as durable, reliable and trustworthy. If the building is beautiful as well, that it in itself can be a draw. Recently stopping in on the 9:30 Sunday liturgy at the Washington Episcopal Cathedral, I was struck by how the architecture, lighting and banners in the nave made for a stunning setting for the smallish but, as I understand it, growing congregation. Bottom line: Buildings enhance mission in all sorts of ways.

      The other response I make is that my reflection was prompted by a lament one often hears in Global North churches, where the number of Christians is declining and dwindling congregations with buildings often find themselves in a financial struggle between maintenance and mission. The situation in many Global South situations such as South Africa is often very different: The church is growing, congregations are multiplying, and buildings are being constructed to accommodate the increased numbers. Demographic shifts, however, still are important considerations. In Zimbabwe, for instance, white flight from the country has made for major shifts in the constituencies of some formerly white congregations. In the Harare area, the transition has been accomplished well in a number of instances such as the Cathedral of St. Mary and All Saints and St. Luke’s in Greendale. Some rural white congregations, however, continued to dwindle; I think of Good Samaritan, Juliasdale, and St. Catherine’s, Troutbeck, in the Nyanga area, despite the fact that their white constituents had a strong desire to welcome black Anglicans after independence.

      Beyond the black-white divide in southern Africa, it is important for church leaders to realize that the current flourishing of church growth does not exempt those with church buildings form always asking the mission question: Are we reaching out to all in our area who need to the embrace of the reconciling gospel of Jesus Christ?

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