Are you breaking up with me?

A letter from your church building.

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Hello it’s me, your church building. I’m writing to you today to try to clear the air. To be honest, I’m not sure that I understand the growing animosity between the two of us. If I have done something wrong, I hope that you will forgive me.

Let me start back at the beginning. It must’ve been decades ago, but I can still remember when you laid my cornerstone. What a beautiful day that was! The sun was shining, everything felt fresh and new and full of promise. My kitchen had the latest and greatest appliances and my walls had a fresh coat of paint. Most important of all, our sanctuary was beautiful with stained-glass and pews designed to be comfortable but not too comfortable; that feature has sure been handy for many a sermon.

Over the years, I must admit that I’ve gotten a little bigger. Things were booming in the 60s and that educational wing seemed like a good idea to me as well. I’d love to slim back up, but I know you understand how hard it is to lose those extra pounds once you’ve put them on. I really do appreciate all those cosmetic touches we’ve worked on together. I think we can agree that the new church sign was really important even if the reader board messages are a bit crass from time to time.

All that said, can I get to the point? It feels sometimes as if you don’t love me anymore.

Over the past few years I’ve heard more and more conversations, mostly in the parking lot, where you use words like ‘burden’ and ‘unfit’ to describe me. Apparently my little leaky roof has gone a shingle too far. Just last week the pastor suggested in her sermon that I was “getting in the way of real ministry.” Apparently, and this is news to me, Jesus was homeless and never had a church building! Can I confess that all of this talk is a bit upsetting to me?

So I am hurt but I’m willing to talk about it. Can we do that?

Let me start by conceding the point. Maybe the pastor is right; maybe real ministry doesn’t need a building. I spent some time the other day reading one of those underused Bibles in my sanctuary, and lo and behold, Jesus never told his disciples to construct church buildings.

Mind completely blown!

On the other hand, Jesus did make use of synagogues for his preaching, and he visited a fairly large Temple a couple times. Jesus did talk about destroying that temple but then he mentioned rebuilding it in three days. What a great metaphor for that next building fund campaign!

So ministry isn’t really about the building. It is all about the people. I can relate to that. You can’t imagine how sad and lonely it is to remain empty between Sundays. To me, a full house is a happy house. Looking to hang out? I am ready to go 24/7. I’ve hosted soup kitchens, homeless folks, Alcoholics/Narcotics/Overeaters Anonymous, Youth Group and Scouts, even the rare Bible study. I used to do more but I remember the committee meeting where it was discussed that I needed to always be clean and available for “church stuff.”

In those meetings and parking lot conversations, you often use the phrase ‘sacred space’ to explain my importance and preservation, which I suppose I should find flattering. But if you don’t mind me saying, it reminds me of those early stages of dating where you pretend that your partner doesn’t pass gas like every other human being since the beginning of time.

Here is the truth. My sanctuary is drafty, there is a leak near the back above Thelma’s pew and some mice live under my chancel. Nothing about my space is sacred when you aren’t there bringing the Spirit with you in prayer and praise (or filling my vestibule with that stimulant you drink so much of).

The way I see it, I’m not the one who changed. I may be accessibility-challenged and have some maintenance issues but you used to take care of me with a joyful heart, knowing that I was the investment your ministry needed. That new church that is growing while renting space at the elementary school would die to have some of the problems we have together.

I guess it just feels like we are that couple that stays together for the kids, except that our ‘kids’ never come to church anymore. I was designed for a much bigger vision of ministry than we have today; and yes, some of the choices we made together weren’t as future-proof as we had hoped. But again, I wonder if I am really the problem. Am I really the thing keeping you from ministry or am I the only thing keeping you in the game at all?

If you want my opinion – and why wouldn’t you want the opinion of a church building that can write? – I hope you’ll think twice the next time you complain about how I’m keeping you from doing real ministry. As your building, let me free you of that notion. You aren’t doing me any favors underusing my sanctuary and neglecting the roof I used to be so proud of. I think I’d rather be sold, demolished, and converted into a Starbucks if it meant more money for ministry to those in real need.

But if you decide you’d prefer to stop blaming me, buckle down and get to doing some real, sacrificial, ministry stuff again, I’m here.

After all, I’m just a building. What choice do I really have in the matter?


By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries

Image Credit: “Covey Church, O’Brien County, Iowa”, some rights reserved, by Flickr User keeva999.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Patrick, you have made my morning! What a creative and powerful witness you have allowed our church buildings to make to us! You have really framed the issue in the transformation/missional challenge that we in the church are confronted with today. In our delusion we so often make the building the scapegoat for our unwillingness/fear of struggling with what the call to be faithful witnesses means in our time. I have shared this piece with our regional and general church leadership in the Disciple who lead us in church building services and missional transformation. Thank you so much.

    • Marvin, thanked for the kind words but thanks even more for reading and sharing! I’m also appreciative of the fact that you got it. 😉

  2. Thanks Patrick for casting a difficult and often contentious issue about “the building” in a way that can lead to some good discussion. You point to the real crux of the challenge: transformational-missional ministries inside and outside the building wherever. Well said, and thank you!

  3. Hello Patrick! This is GREAT! I especially like how you point out the fact that, even though “Jesus never told his disciples to construct church buildings”, he DID make use of the synagogues in his day, as well as the Temple in Jerusalem. To that, I would add (the fact that), soon after the Ascension, the early Christians would meet inside BUILDINGS (that is to say, inside one another’s HOMES; i.e., “the HOUSE CHURCH”), and, during other times of persecution, they would meet inside “PLACES OF REFUGE”, structures such as caves (i.e., “the catacombs”)! // Since the 1970’s, I’ve heard people say, “The church is NOT ‘the building’; it’s ‘THE PEOPLE’!” Well, that’s not entirely correct. The Greek word for church (“ekklesia”) does not translate as “the people” (the Greek word for “people” is “demos”); rather, it translates as “the GATHERING, or the ASSEMBLING, of the people (i.e., those people who have been ‘called out’ by God; called out ‘of darkness, and into the light’)”! And, WHENEVER ANY people “gather”, or “assemble” — especially, ON A REGULAR BASIS (like on the Sabbath day, each week) — they, eventually-and-inevitably, construct some sort of structure (a building of some kind), so as to provide some sort of shelter/refuge, so as to provide some amount of protection from the elements. // I really enjoyed reading this “Letter From Your Church Building”! Good work, Patrick! // A Change in Topic, Now: I am, currently, finishing-up almost two weeks of “house-sitting” for Preston and Kathi, in NH; and, I will be doing the same for another ANTS couple (a couple that came to ANTS after you and Cara had left.) Preston keeps telling me that — since I travel all over the country now (by train), as I get invited to speak and to exhibit my artwork (at colleges, universities, and churches) — I should make my way up to Washington, sometime, so as to visit with you and Cara (if you may be interested in having me speak and exhibit my artwork at any number of churches in your area.) Let me know what you think of this idea. I think you already have my cell phone #; if not, just call Preston; you can always get it from him. Preston thinks we can work well, together. I’ve been invited to speak at Santa Clara University (near San Jose, CA) around this time, next year (Jan, 2015); so, I’ll already be on the West Coast, then. Maybe, I could take another train, up to your area, a month or so beforehand, and do something for The Four Sundays of Advent, 2014 (!?) Think about it, pray about it. Peace, brother. — Matthew.

  4. I’ve seen a lot of different church buildings over the years, so I don’t think it’s the architecture that’s the issue. Rather, it’s what’s NOT being offered inside the building that is key. I attend a UMC-affiliated church building that is heavily indebted (how about a ten-year building project … and counting?) partly because the giving folks would rather attend church in a neighboring community, rather than to stay local. Why? We’re hungry … we’re hungry for the Word, for the Gospel, for a message that challenges us to repent, to live true to our calling, for a church where “discipleship” is not a class offered after worship service or during a weekly home meeting, a place where authentic Christianity is practiced as well as preached. John Wesley would not recognize the message delivered from our pulpits. Our Bibles are, as you say, underused because we don’t USE them in the service. Rather, we talk about Scripture as if it were a “Book of the Month Club” feature. We talk about God; we don’t really invite Him into the building. Little wonder the giving for the church has dropped. If you aren’t getting much (if anything) from inside the building, it’s tough to get us excited about its upkeep.

  5. Very creative way of making your point, Patrick! Many of us are conflicted with how much time and money to spend on the facility vs. out in the mission field. I am proud of how well we seem to be using our building resources right now… lots of groups meet here. I’m also proud of the care given to our building by our Trustees and others who maintain/improve it. Thanks again, Patrick

    • Thanks for the feedback Donna. Glad to hear your church has had success striking the balance. I know that is not an easy task for congregations riding the waves of all sorts of change.

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