Church buildings are what we sometimes call "expedients." That is, scripture neither explicitly condones nor condemns them. The fact that we have no record of the existence of church buildings until the third century may be interpreted in at least two ways. Those accustomed to church buildings will interpret their non-existence at that time as an undesirable necessity forced on the people of God by persecution which was common during its early history. Others will interpret it to mean that the early ekklesia recognized that its existence as a local community of Christians did not necessitate a special building. Whichever of these interpretations is correct, I intend to show why in this day and age, church buildings are counterproductive to the propagation of the gospel.
1) Church buildings divert large amounts of money from more evangelistic-intensive purposes. The typical church building absorbs 40-60% of the local church's budget; a budget which has no authorization to exist and even if it did, deserves judgement for its perverted priorities. In contrast, the fielding of cross-cultural evangelists, Bible translators, and the giving to the needy usually absorbs less than 10%. In a world of 2.5 billion non-Christians living among the 17,000 "unreached people groups" (distinct cultural groups lacking a self-reproducing Christian community) and 2.2 billion non-Christians among the 6500 "reached" people groups (groups containing a self-reproducing Christian community), and 3000 languages for which the Bible has not been translated, such financial priorities are inexcusable!
2) Church buildings divert people's attention away from reaching the lost and discipling the saved. So-called Men's Business Meetings are dominated with discussion regarding the purchase and upkeep of this seemingly necessary accessory of middle class American Christianity. These same men usually spend no time in serious Bible study, evangelistic calling, conducting evangelistic Bible studies, or in serious Bible teaching. If Christians spent as much time on evangelism, discipling, and Bible study as they do on church buildings, it could revolutionize the carrying out of the mission of God's people. It is a testimony to our spiritual bankruptcy that we are able to easily invest so much time and care in a building, and so little in the actual mission of the ekklesia.
3) Church buildings actually blunt our evangelistic effectiveness. This is probably not obvious to you.
I have heard it argued that church buildings are an important, even indispensable evangelistic tool. I have even heard Old Testament passages used to assert that we don't really love the Lord if He has to meet with us in a dilapidated meeting-house. After all, God deserves good advertising.
If a building attracts new members, they are almost certain to be (1) dissatisfied with their present church in which case they will only be getting the same confusion in a new building, or (2) they are nominal "Christians" who think that the new building .will give their religion new vitality, in which case they will overflow the building with nominal Christians. If church buildings attract non-Christians, it is probably for very questionable motives, like acquiring respectability in the community. Even if the end justified the means, it is doubtful that church buildings communicate the content of the gospel so much as that the church has aligned itself with the values and powers of this world.
In truth, church buildings retard our evangelistic impact. In a recent survey among 32,548 Southern Baptist congregations, it was found that the smaller the congregation, the more evangelistically effective it was, and also the younger the congregation, the more evangelistically effective it was. When I say "evangelistically effective," I mean as measured in baptisms per hundred "members" per year. A ten year old fellowship of 40 people will average about 11.4 baptisms per hundred "members" per year. A 35 year old congregation of 40 "members" will baptize 5.5 per hundred "members" per year, about half the previous rate. A 15 year old superchurch of 3000 (commonly found in Southern California) will baptize only 2.6 per hundred members per year or only about one-quarter as many as a 40 member fellowship. This data has enormous implications for how we exist as Christian communities! For you see, superchurches (very large churches with an extensively developed organization; frequently called "megachurches" in church growth literature) are the pride and joy of clergymen and "elders." I say, "of clergymen" because one of the chief measures of a clergyman's stature among his peers is the size of his physical plant. I say, "of elders" because most elders are given their position not because of their spiritual leadership but because of their business savvy. The successful execution of a building program is proof positive of his competence in his expertise for which he was chosen.
It is argued that superchurches offer many services that small fellowships do not provide. This argument is one of the favorite of the clergyman, for he knows that if he can pull off building a superchurch, he will have national stature in his denomination. I will make short work of his principal argument at once. Suppose he succeeds in building a superchurch of 1200 at the end of 15 years. Based on the statistics available to me (1976 Baptism Rate by 1976 Resident Membership by Age of Church; a table found in Dean R. Hoge and David A. Roozen; Understanding Church Growth and Decline [NY: Pilgrim Press, 1979]), this superchurch will baptize on the average 67 per year. Sounds pretty impressive, eh? But the same 1200 assembled in non-institutional house-fellowships of 50, each which are 10 years old, will baptize 137 per year. So one rather important service which 137-67= 70 persons in the superchurch's target community will not enjoy is eternal life. Slightly more important than intramural sports or a 50 piece orchestra.
Any necessary function that can be done by a superchurch can also be done by a cooperation between several small fellowships. You see, authors of the conventional wisdom point to the great number of baptisms of their superchurch. I point to the great numbers of baptisms of their superchurch. I point to the great numbers who failed to be reached because we did not use the strategy of small fellowships.
So does the size of superchurches constitute an unbiblical practice? Perhaps not directly, but (1) the great numbers they fail to reach in their target area and (2) the antiscriptural practices they tend to require make them of highly questionable stewardship.
So what does this have to do with church buildings? The larger the congregation becomes, the more pressure there is to buy a building, but the less efficient it becomes at winning converts. Furthermore, the purchase of a building puts even further pressure on the congregation to build the congregation into a large body, which steadily decreases its evangelistic effectiveness. If you are still skeptical at this point, I refer you to the table referred to above in the Hogs and Roozen book. Convince yourself that what I say is true.
Superchurches tend to attract more transfer growth--people who want to go where there is an institutional smorgasbord, and a nationally known superchurch "pastor." Non-institutional house-fellowships on the other hand tend to attract people who rightfully have problems with the institutional church. To us, these people don't fit into our churches. To them, our culturally perverted form of the ekklesia impresses them with its many contradictions. .
4) Church buildings discourage the employment of more evangelistic-intensive methods. If as we have shown, smaller and younger fellowships are more evangelistically intensive, then the outstanding financial obligations of a building tend to discourage the sending out of the nuclei of new of new congregations for several reasons. First, it is a rare clergyman or "Eldership" that will send forth its best members to start a new and possibly competing work across town. Second, the money these members contribute is coveted for the local leaders pet projects, like phase 8 of the building expansion. Third, a clergyman rises in the pecking order of clergymen according to the size of his organization, not according to number of new congregations he has started. This is just a political fact of the clergy system. The benchmark of the size of his organization is the size of his church building. All of these factors work together to put great pressure on you to finance church buildings, and to thus discourage the more evangelistic intensive method of proliferating the community with autonomous but interdependent small fellowships.
5) Church buildings are a symbol of "success" in terms of financial and management prowess of the Eldership and dynamic leadership of the clergy. This is certainly a bad motive for constructing a building. You may wonder how I know that this is a motive for the construction of buildings, given the pulpit rhetoric to the contrary. First, in the modern institutional church, the primary purpose of the sermon is not to build mature Christians but to advance institutional goals, including building programs. Second, the true motives of men are frequently couched behind rhetoric. In the political realm, it is frequently called "ideology." In the religious realm, it is frequently called "theology." In both, its purpose is the control of people. I mean people like you and me! And as power can be had via the development of institutional machinery and a building is a useful accessory to this end, we continue to have church buildings.
But how do I suspect that buildings are a symbol of pride? Their image is printed on church letterhead alongside the clergymen or "staff." Their price tag is used as the benchmark of clergy stature. I have seen this done from the pulpit and through the media, and in private conversations with the clergymen. Also, their existence is consistent with the general materialism of American Christianity.
6) As an accessory to the institutional church, the building reinforces our faulty understanding of the ekklesia as being either the building or the organization which principally meets in that building. In the presence of the building, we habitually think of the ekklesia in terms of this accessory until we cannot think of it in any other terms. This is especially bad where people cannot afford property. The gospel is positively hindered where people can ill afford to construct a building; but feel the force of habit to do so. This occurs in the inner city or in the Two-Thirds World. It is especially sad to see congregations selling "their" inner city real estate to reinvest in the outer suburbs to protect "their" assets from the ravages of white flight. Then they sell to a religious group which repudiates all they ostensibly stood for. Such a practice only demonstrates that their commitment was not to the community but to themselves, their organization, and the protection of their own capital.
Further, church buildings tend to actually stifle the cultivation of genuine fellowship and interpersonal communication. The church building is designed to reinforce the model of the ekklesia principally as an audience; not as a community of mutually accountable and mutually serving participants. The present tradition of organizing the church's life around the pulpit performance of the clergyman is a child of the Protestant Reformation; not of the New Testament. .
7) The budding encourages the centralization of meetings under its roof so as to justify its expense. But this centralization of meetings is the exact opposite of what is needed. For one thing, the most effective penetration of the community occurs when the gospel is communicated outside of the confines of the building out in homes and other locations. For another thing, decentralization of meetings would encourage the development of nonclerical leadership. This would in turn make better use of existing human potential and would provide more non-institutional contexts in which non-Christians or Christians on the fringe would feel more comfortable. But, of course, the clergy and the institutional church are nervous about giving "lay" leaders too much independence. After all, they might split off and start a new organization of their own.
8) Church buddings are a loud statement to the poor and to thinking unbelievers that our institutional accessories are more important to us than maintaining lean and streamlined practices which allow us more money for the poor or for the fielding of missionaries.
To get a feel for how buildings positively hinder our finance of world mission, let us try to think of what it will cost to reach the remaining 17,000 unreached people groups (defined above). About 3000 of the 17,000 remaining unreached people groups need the Bible in translation as well and nearly all of these languages need the language reduced to writing. (That is, the language does not yet exist in written form). Each one of these unreached people groups could easily absorb a missionary's entire career. Including expenses of the mission, logistical support, and an accompanying family, we would easily be talking about $30K per year in constant 1989 dollars. Over a 40 year career, this amounts to $1.2 million. This is equivalent to about one building of about 500 capacity in Southern California or three modest sized buildings of 300 capacity in Western Nebraska. For a benchmark, let us call a typical church building a purchase of $600K. Then one missionary's career costs 2 average church buildings, not even considering maintenance and interest. Then to minimally reach the remaining unreached people groups will cost at least 34,000 church buildings. This estimate is based on very optimistic assumptions and has as its goal, the nominal establishment of a self-re-producible Christian community in every remaining unreached people group.
Now at this cost, the reaching of every remaining unreached people group would be attainable within one generation if the personnel could be found. There are about 125,000 missionaries around the world at present. But unfortunately, nearly all are working among the "reached" people groups. Another 17,000 each targeted to an unreached people group would not be unattainable in this generation. Ideally, a team of workers should be sent to each remaining unreached people group. Then we could easily use another 100,000 missionaries and Bible translators. But would the funds be available? Not as long as we prefer to finance church buildings and oversized multiple staffs on the payroll. Consequently, since the money needed for fielding the needed numbers of missionaries is tied up in real estate and since the number of countries closed to traditional "church-supported" missionaries is vastly increasing, self-supporting missionaries will need to become the norm.
9) As a symbol of power, the church building can be a source of great infighting. When we give to the "building fund," some of us really have strings attached to that money. That money is not really given to the Lord but to ourselves. Consequently, when a church split develops, a primary concern is over who will retain ownership of the property.
10) The church building contributes to the perversion of our understanding of money in its relation to the local ekklesia. The outstanding obligations of the building puts pressure on us to pass an offering plate. "Pre-offering" or "pre-collection" arm twisting (devotionals) by the deacons or elders assume that all of the Christian's giving is to be done through a so-called local church treasury, which is administered by the Eldership by means of collection during meetings. It is also becoming a widespread practice to secure pledges to pay for church buildings. By means of "faith-promise" banquets. These practices combine to form an oppressive system of pressure tactics for securing money to pay for our buildings and other institutional accessories. The saints, if left to their own devices, might give to more evangelistic-intensive purposes.
11) Our predominant dependence on church buildings has probably contributed to the zoning laws in some places which prohibit religious meetings in private homes. If we did not depend on church buildings, such laws would probably never have come into existence.
12) Church buildings tend to reinforce our dependence on the clergy. If nearly all of the meetings occur in the building (and a substantial number must if we are to justify its purchase), then the clergy will be nearly all of the teaching talent needed. This has disastrous results. First, it discourages the development of non-professional leaders. This in turn prevents the development of the kind of Christian maturity which would be necessary to free the saints from their dependence on the clergy and the institutional church. The dependence on the clergy tends to not encourage the people to study the Bible for themselves. Then they become accustomed to getting the Bible second-hand from the clergy. All of this becomes a vicious cycle.
13) If a revolution were ever to occur, church property could quickly be confiscated and liquidated. Buildings would make it much harder for Christians to go underground since they will have invested so much capital in the building. They would be much more traceable through all the legal documents associated with the corporation and the building and would thus be more vulnerable. Since the assets are not put to their best use while in the form of buildings, their confiscation is not such a loss. The usable capital is already tied up. Its confiscation might very well be the event that finally awakens us to the fact that the ekklesia is merely the people and not the building or the organization.
So are church buildings contrary to scripture? Not directly. But they tend to reduce the evangelistic effectiveness of the people of God in many ways and they tend to go hand in hand with the anti-scriptural institutional model of the ekklesia. Therefore from the standpoint of good strategy, stewardship, and clear thinking about who we are as God's people, we would do better without them. Where should you then meet? Try experimenting a little. I have been in small fellowships that have met in homes, parks, school buildings, offices, barrooms, and banquet rooms. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. But in every case, I think you will find that disposing of the building will be very liberating and will free your thinking to explore other ways to "de-institutionalize" yourself.