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What a Church Building Can´t Do

 

“What a Church Building Can’t Do”      Haggai 1:15b-2:9             Nov. 7, 2010

Haggai is one of the Bible’s lesser known prophets. His book is a mere two chapters long, but he had something important to say to the people of his day — and to us, as well. Haggai was a postexilic prophet; he preached to the people of Judah after their return from exile in Babylon.

Naturally, those Jews who chose to return to their homeland set out with some appreciation for the Persians, but they still weren’t free. They remained subjects of the Persian Empire.
 
And the Jerusalem to which they returned must have been a heartbreaking sight. The city walls were down, rubble lay heaped where homes had once stood, and the temple, the heart of Judah’s religion, was destroyed.

Within the first year of coming back, the returnees made a halfhearted attempt to clear the temple foundations, but they soon lost interest and instead went to work on their own homes.

Who could blame them? Things really weren’t going very well. The people had to struggle daily just to get enough to eat. Their economy was in shambles, and the nearby Samaritans were hassling them. Dealing with harsh realities of daily existence occupied most of their time and energy.
 
When Haggai comes onto the scene in 520, 18 years after the return, he observes: “Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes” (Haggai 1:5-6).

But Haggai has the word of the Lord, and he tells the people they have their priorities wrong. Speaking of the temple, he says, “Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house [i.e., the temple] lies in ruins?” (Haggai 1:4). No, he says, they should first rebuild the temple, take care of God’s house and then turn to their own comforts.

The people responded, and within five years, the work on the temple was complete. This second temple was not as grand as the original one Solomon built, but at least the people had a house of worship, and they greatly rejoiced.

One interesting characteristic distinguishes Haggai’s message about the temple. The pre-exilic prophets (those who preached before the exile and while Solomon’s temple was still standing) also cherished God’s house. But they chided the people for relying too much on temple attendance and on the religious rituals practiced there — including animal sacrifices, tithing and festivals — while ignoring the weightier matters of justice and mercy.
 
Jeremiah, for example, warned the people, “Amend your ways and your doings ... Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord”(Jeremiah 7:3-4). Haggai, on the other hand, urges the people to get serious about rebuilding the temple.

If Haggai had lived back when Jeremiah did, he probably would’ve agreed with Jeremiah. But Haggai lived in a different time under different conditions. The people of Jeremiah’s time were taking God for granted, treating the temple like a good-luck charm.
 
The people of Haggai’s day were acting as if God had little importance in their lives. And so Haggai’s advice was different from Jeremiah’s. For Haggai’s contemporaries, rebuilding the temple needed to take precedence over making themselves comfortable.

Times are even different today from those of either Jeremiah or Haggai, and that leads us to consider what Haggai might say to modern congregations about their buildings. These days, we spend a lot of money on church buildings, both in constructing new ones and in maintaining existing ones. But many existing churches are underutilized.
 
In some places, buildings have become obstacles to having vigorous congregations. For example, consider how many small churches of the same denomination are often within a 10- to 15-mile radius of each other. Having that many churches that close together made sense when people got around with horses and buggies.
 
Today, however, when driving 10 or 15 miles is a matter of only a few minutes, a single strong church comprising of members of the region’s various small churches would make sense.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account how attached we become to our church buildings and what they each represent in terms of community identity or several other considerations. But what would Haggai say? Today, we suspect, he would not urge us to construct more church buildings but to make better use of the ones we have.

Given what some people might call our excessive love of buildings and structures to worship in and the millions of dollars we pour into buildings that are sometimes woefully underused, today Haggai might say that although the Lord has a nice house, some people in the neighborhood don’t.
 
Haggai might call us to downsize or lower our expectations regarding our buildings, and look at the people who live within a mile radius of our church building to see how we could help them.

And what would the prophet say to large churches that have spent huge amounts to construct gorgeous edifices? If they are well used, filled with activity and serve as centers from which mission and ministry flow, then Haggai might be satisfied. But if they aren’t, he might well ask if the churches have any value beyond fine architecture.

Salem United Methodist Church is the house of a small congregation in a rural area south of Alliance, Ohio. Those folks were recently forced to consider what their building means in terms of not only their ministry and mission but also in terms of their continuance as a congregation.
 
Rev. Neil Orchard, who pastors that church, is also a church consultant in his weekday job. He often begins his work with client churches by asking them to consider two questions: “If this church burned down, why would you rebuild it?” and “If this church burned down, would the community miss it?”

On March 13, 2010, Orchard suddenly had to ask those questions of his own congregation — and not in a hypothetical context. Early that morning, someone threw an incendiary device into Salem Church through a stained-glass window. A passerby spotted the resulting fire and called for help. Although three fire departments responded, the fire had already spread, damaging the fellowship hall extensively and gutting the sanctuary.

“Fixing the damage will max out our insurance,” Orchard said. “We had $710,000 on the building and $107,000 on the contents, and it’s going to take it all.”

The current plan is to restore the fellowship hall, which was built in 1968. The sanctuary, constructed in 1939, is to be demolished to make room for a new one.

Before congregation members arrived at that plan, however, they first had to answer the hard questions Orchard — and denomination officials — asked. The Salem congregation isn’t large, and no one wanted to pour money into rebuilding if the congregation were going to dwindle. The district board asked the congregation to spend some time in prayer and discernment as they mulled over the church’s future.

Parishioners considered whether to merge with another United Methodist church, to close, or to commit themselves to a serious plan for congregational growth. When a vote was taken, 100 percent of the membership voted for growth. “I was amazed at how willing they were to let go of the past and embrace the future,” Orchard said.

The congregation followed the vote with a 12-page growth plan, which it submitted to the district board of church location and building. Assuming that everything is approved, the church expects to begin rebuilding yet this year and move into the completed structure four months. In the meantime, the congregation is meeting for worship in a nearby volunteer-fire-department building.

Since today is Dedication Sunday I thought it appropriate to encourage our congregation to consider these things as we come to the end of 2010 and prepare to move into 2011 and beyond. What will our future hold?
 
Rev. Kurt Landerholm, superintendent of the United Methodist district to which Salem Church belongs, said, “Every congregation was born with a clear picture of why people needed Jesus Christ, the church and their congregation. When buildings were built they were erected because there was that clear passion, and we have a responsibility to keep that vision alive.
 
Every congregation needs to have an honest conversation about their present viability.”He says the tragedy of the Salem fire was also an opportunity for the Salem congregation “to prayerfully move into the future asking honest questions and seeking the correct direction.”
 
In an article titled “Three things church buildings can never do” (living-stones.com/ threethings.htm), based on the book When Not to Build: An Architect’s Unconventional Wisdom for the Growing Church (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1992, 2000), Ray Bowman and Eddy Hall identify three false expectations that people commonly hold and promote when churches consider a building program.
 
The first is that building will stimulate growth. The authors argue from experience that, under the best of circumstances, this often simply doesn’t hold true. Moreover, building to stimulate growth is sometimes used as an excuse for doing the work of outreach required to bring about growth.

The second false expectation is that building will improve giving to ministry. Although building programs do, in fact, tend to motivate people to give, the money goes to building buildings, which isn’t the same as ministry.
Rare is the church that raises enough funds to cover a building’s entire cost. Then when a deficit occurs, money is often siphoned from the programs that actually help people.

The third false expectation is that building will motivate people to minister. But buildings cannot meet non-building needs. In the words of these authors and architects:
 
“To expect church buildings to stimulate growth, inspire healthy stewardship or motivate outreach is to expect church buildings to do the impossible. Why?
Because these are all ministry needs, not building needs; and buildings can’t minister.”
 
These questions are useful ways to consider what a church building means to a congregation and how it helps or hinders what the church should be about.

We can’t answer these questions without prayer, but they belong in our thinking. It’s a good idea to ask ourselves these questions every couple of years or so, for they can help us determine where our congregation’s ministry needs to be expanded or changed.
 
As we dedicate our pledges for next year, we continue to pray and ask God’s blessings our congregation’s ministry to family, friends and community. May God continue to bless our building, our resources, and ourselves. Amen.

Rev. Rosemary Stelz, First Presbyterian Church, Bastrop, Louisiana

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