Over the years it has become apparent to me that most of us desperately need an eleventh commandment. I know, we canít just run out and add another commandment. Goodness knows we have enough trouble modeling the ten weíve got! But if it were possible, another commandment is in order:
Thou shalt not love thy buildings more than thy God.
Just for the fun of it, whatís the first image that comes to mind when I say the word church? A building? Now, what is the first image that comes to mind when I ask you to recall the church you grew up in as a child? Iíll bet you saw a picture of a church building. Remember the childhood jingle that was accompanied by hand signs? Hereís the church and hereís the steeple. Open the door and see all the people.
Years ago, I met the members in a very small, dying church that had once been a major church. I was brought in to help them work through their need (for a variety of excellent reasons) to relocate the church. The second day of the consultation a major portion of the sanctuary roof literally fell in. Within minutes members gathered to view the damage. "Our church is ruined!" echoed through the many tears shed that afternoon. As I stood with them among the rubble, I was reminded of another who wept, only he wept for a city. The story of the collapsed roof didnít end there. Surely, I thought, they will view the collapsed roof as a godsend to help them relocate. But a month later they voted to replace the roof and remain where they were! Do we really believe that in some miraculous way, God is more present in the church building than at home?
Recently a church planter told me that his growing band of Christians had met in a variety of locations over two years. Our conversations centered around the issues he faced, primarily the constant pressure by some of his people to find a permanent "church home." He said to me, "The people are asking me when weíre going to buy property and build so that we can have Ďa real church.í What do I tell them?"
Consciously or unconsciously, we have equated the word church with space, place, and location. As a result, we place far too much emphasis on the brick and mortar and what I call the "located church." Church has become something we "go to" rather than wherever two or more Christians gather together. So what? Is it really a big a deal if we have a slightly skewed view of church? I think so. Our worship of the brick-and-mortar, located church has proven to put several challenges before many of our dying congregations. The most serious implication: Many of us have substituted worship of place for worship of God. We have substituted a reverence for brick and mortar for a reverence for the Holy.
One of my favorite stories describes a man named Ed, who told me that he slept during most worship services. When I asked him why he didnít just stay home and sleep, he said, "I sleep better in Godís house." What an insipid little phrase: "Godís house." We donít want children to "run in Godís house." We want people to enter in reverence because it is Godís house. Do we really believe that in some miraculous way, God is more present in the church building than at home? No wonder we say one thing at church and do another in real life.
Our buildings determine too much of our ministry. We bring people "to church" instead of sending disciples out to share the good news. When our buildings become obsolete, we refuse to tear them down to make room for more usable facilities. We canít imagine starting a new church without buying land and erecting a building. When the population moves away from the location in which the "church" was built, we refuse to relocate or even consider having a church in two or more locations. We cannot bear to part with familiar furniture, even though it is worn out. We eagerly have special fund drives for building projects but never ever consider having them for ministry needs. We build buildings without staffing them to ensure that ministry occurs. We canít park any more cars or start any more Sunday school classes. We canít start a second worship service because the noise will disturb a nearby class. The elderly stay home because they canít walk up the stairs anymore. Our sanctuary doesnít have air conditioning so during the summer we move worship to an earlier time. The list goes on. The meaning of space, location, and property is being redefined.
Our love of our located, brick-and-mortar church goes against the grain of the culture of our time. Until recently, physical property has always been central to societyís development of society. Before currency was invented, people bartered their property. Over time, they built cities so that people could find safety in numbers and reduce the amount of time it took to conduct commerce. In such a world, location provided visibility. In the modern world, property was sold based on the amount of space and location. Buildings were rented on the basis of how much space was required. Demographers refer to people born before 1946 as the Builders. In the latter half of the twentieth century, location, location, location became the byword of business. In modernity place, space, and location were kings. And the saying held true that "if we build it, they will come."
As a result, it is impossible for many of us to get our heads around the growing implications of cyber meeting fiber. When I talk about the cyber church, peopleís faces go blank. Most people canít conceive of church taking place in cyberspace. After all, a cyber church doesnít have a location, doesnít take up space, and doesnít require a place for brick and mortar. However, post modernity is changing all of this. The importance of place is disappearing. The meaning of space, location, and property is being redefined. Because of the Internet and cell phones, to mention only two digital wonders, people donít have to huddle together in crowded cities or live near their jobs. Fewer people go to work today than ever before. Distance determines the cost of fewer and fewer things. Location is being defined by oneís URL. Companies can locate their screen-based activity anywhere on earth, wherever they can find the best bargain of skills and productivity (I still donít know my webpageís physical location). Space is becoming how many bytes of server hardware a group has. Whereas one of the hardest things my mother ever did was to give up her home, one of the hardest things people have to do now is to give up their online access, their URL, or their domain name.
Recently on one of our online forums a conversation began about multiple-site churches. After a couple of days of email conversation, the following post appeared. "I donít understand how anyone in their right mind could even consider a church having two locations. How can you divide the Body of Christ like that?" Whoever posted this addition to the conversation had taken the worship of the located church to its ultimate conclusion. He equated the Body of Christ with a local congregation of people located in one place.
Every month I run into out-of-the-norm gatherings of Christians who reject the trappings of the located, brick-and-mortar church. Over the twenty-year history of Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, California), it has had over fifty locations. Its leaders knew that space, place, and location do not limit Godís presence. Thousands of people worshiped together before they located in one place. First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, has more than two hundred locations. Coffee houses, cafť churches, and rollerblade churches abound with young followers of Jesus who spend endless hours in conversation, exploring their experiences with the Holy. The house-church movement continues to gain momentum in every area of the country. Are these gatherings of Christians sowing the seeds of what Christianity will look like in the not-too- distant future?
A couple of years ago on New Yearís Eve, an event took place that has left a haunting memory with me. I watched a ten-year-old, multi-million-dollar casino in Las Vegas imploded at midnight to make room for a bigger and more functional casino. The building, still in perfect condition, just didnít serve the mission of the casino operators as well as a new building could. So they tore it down to make room for another. No sentiment, just mission driven. What impressed me about this event? Why canít church leaders love Godís mission for the Church as much as those casino operators love making money! So I ask you the question that a vast majority of our dying churches need to hear: What would change in your church if your church leaders were more in love with the Great Commission than with their facilities?
Reprinted from Net Results, a monthly journal of New Ideas in Church Vitality. For more information or to subscribe, see www.netresults.org; email firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 806/762-8094 x106; fax 806/762-8873.