“My parents are very religious…very pro-Iraq-conflict…’Cause that’s what Jesus would do; smoke them out of their holes like the gentle carpenter, oh he only turns the other cheek to grab another can of whoop-ass…” –Maria Bamford
Dear Christian Churches:
Hey folks, I know it’s been a tough season. Money has been tight. Formerly needy people are finding new ways of comforting themselves. Crazy fringe groups like: Greater Ministries International, the Westborough Baptists, Focus on the Family, CBN, and the GOP, have co-opted our message and distorted it to the point of being unrecognizable. People are buying in like crazy. People are like crazy. People are crazy. People be cray-cray. It’s been tough.
This hasn’t been true for all of us. For some, times are good. For some, the walls and doors of their buildings can barely contain the number of devoted followers who joyfully rush to their respective over-stuffed houses of worship and make it rain. Every. Chance. They. Get. The coffers are full. Their problem is different. Their question is: Do we create more worship services, or move to a different space? That is the purpose of this letter.
Please stop erecting new church buildings.
You suck at it. There was a time when we, as a faith, killed it when it came to architecture. Most of the great artists and trades-people were on board with our mission (not by choice, but seriously, to-may-toe_to-mah-toe). As a result, there exist beautiful structures that double as grand examples of devoted worship. That is not the case anymore. Like the great sage Glenn Frye (actually it was Don Henley–kindly pointed out by Jill in the comments) once said: “…those days are gone forever, we should just let ’em go”. These days, churches are more apt to drive through the town in which they’re called to serve, passing every abandoned commercial shit-box, to find a fresh plot of land, and build their own ply-wood and glass shit-box. Not cool guys. Not cool.
Every single one of these boxes will one day be shuttered. Then what? Nothing, nobody wants that building. It becomes an ugly and hollow visage of its former mediocrity. If it is small enough, one might be able to find a non-profit thrift-store or crisis-pregnancy center (both seem to have a similar distrust for aesthetic) to fill the void between the walls; for a season. But, for the most part, it just sits there in a state of perpetual decay until–one day–it catches fire or is torn down by the city for safety reasons. A testimony for all to witness.
I remember being involved with such a situation when the church I was attending left the Seventh-Day Adventist building in which they were meeting to build a monstrosity in the woods…next to a golf-course community. The church, which I’ll call: Christ the Rock Community Church, left the building we were occupying because we were asked to leave by the Adventists. It wasn’t really anyone’s fault. It was the result of two differing Christian worldviews that could not find common ground anymore. So maybe it was everyone’s fault. These things can be tricky. But, at a time when we were looking to find a new place to call home, Wal-Mart had successfully won the battle against the local (pro-living-wage) K-Mart (yet another evidence that free-market economics lack perspective). The former K-Mart building was vacant and available. It would’ve served as a great building. The reason given for not utilizing that building was: cost…not that the money wasn’t there, it would’ve cost more to renovate than to build a new building. We know now that this was a result of heavily manipulated stressors on real-estate and building supplies; things over which the average church community has no control.
But that’s my point, it’s the short-sightedness of building funds that stifle us. Even if the cost was legitimately more burdensome, imagine the testimony to the surrounding community that a vacant eye-sore could be made into something useful. This would effectively transform a building fund into a general ministries or missionary fund. A bargain at twice the price. Re-purposed buildings are physical examples of redemption to a community. They are examples of the gospel…a gospel of second chances. In this transubstantiation, commonplace brick and mortar become the words of God–just as ink and paper, or the actions of the devoted, do.
The other beautiful thing that happens when you re-purpose a building is that nothing is lost. When the community moves on, the building is every bit as useful as it was when they got there. Unlike the ply-wood shit-boxes in the forest, commercial properties remain commercial properties to be filled or torn down as the land-owners and surrounding community see fit. There is a stasis achieved that is bigger and more stable than the whims of a church board in crisis.
Or don’t have a building. If you’ve money, find a place that you can use and disperse the money into the economy by supporting the school, or grange, or community center in which you meet. It offers you less autonomy, but it is in the wrestling…the negotiation…the forced contact with those in charge that we are forced out of our western passive-aggressive monastic state. A church building should be a conduit for contact with the surrounding community. Not a sanctuary from it…not a strong-tower.
It’s time to re-think this form of consumerist philosophy. It is time to disconnect our sense of worth from property. What would Jesus do? I don’t know. I never got the vibe that he was in to property rights…he seemed indifferent toward property. There was a time when church buildings were works of art…so much so that when they were of no use to the church community that once filled their voids, they became useful to the community at large. They were made into pubs or libraries or personal dwellings…all of which are more akin to first century churches than the mega-box churches of western white-washed suburbia that we see today. Re-purposed commercial buildings are not only more centrally-located to the community, they’re also (when used with proper hospitality) a gift to the people in the community. A gift for which it is hard to be compensated. In a consumerist society, that is a rare gift. And it is an important gift, if for no other reason than to keep the giver honest…