We all know that change is often hard. We all know that change is often necessary.
We all know that change is often feared.
I remember hearing once during a conversation on Missional/Emergent church that people really don’t fear change, but what they fear is loss. And as I have transitioned from one ministry to another, that thought has struck me in a new way:
We don’t fear change, we fear loss.
We don’t want to lose what we have, so we try to hold on desperately.
To hold on desperately, we must have power, so we become concerned with gaining/keeping power.
Most conflicts in the church become power struggles. As the church continues to change, even transform, into the 21st century, we are more and more concerned with gaining and holding on to power so we won’t lose what we have. So we can keep the traditions we like that we associate with memories of what “good church is.” So we can get back to the church we remember, when it was thriving (at least, how we remember it, how it appeared), when people went to church.
Problem is, we can’t make people go to church. We can’t make people want what we remember. We can’t make people be like us. So we dwindle and dwindle.
And the center of the power struggle is… the building.
But stop for a moment. When we look at the first and second century Christians, when we read the letters of the New Testament, I don’t remember Paul writing about any conflict over a church building. There were power struggles, yes—but no church building. People met in each other’s homes, at the synagogues, or down by the river.
We know that church buildings were not long in coming, and by the fourth and fifth centuries there were church buildings in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. While we know there were rival church groups, and in the divisions of orders within the Catholic Church after the first millennium, for the most part church buildings were not build to be in competition with each other.
Then came the Protestant Reformation, and a few hundred years later, the Great Awakenings in the United States. And church buildings sprung up like daisies. Church groups built new buildings across the green, or even across the street, from other church buildings.
Church buildings were, of course, the community center for many. It’s where you went if you were poor or in need. It’s where you went to pray and seek counsel. Church buildings had a significance for all people within the greater community.
Now a new transformation is beginning—or is it just getting back to our roots? We don’t need the church building the way we once did. YMCA’s, community centers, malls and parks have taken away the social needs. A greater understanding of faith life has led to many to seek individual ways of finding faith. And when the church has insisted you need community, you need a church building—you need the old ways—society has found a way to resist even greater.
The church needs to let go of the building. It was not part of our earliest memories, nor did Jesus call us to go and build church buildings—he called us to go and make disciples.
The church building is the center of power for many people. They have put their hopes and dreams and their finances into the building. Many were involved in the design and décor of certain rooms in the building and also determine the function and use of those rooms. The building committee or trustees determine what needs to be done about the building and what finances are used or what is needed to maintain the function of the building. The building itself is called the church. Many churches continue to use a picture of the building as their logo for promotion.
One of the biggest problems for the church today is the continued mistake of thinking the church is the building. And even churches who are aware of this problem continue to do so by masking this mistake under colorful language of “being good stewards of the blessings we have.” There is nothing wrong with that statement in itself. If the “blessings,” however, is understood by most to be the building and/or finances, then you have a problem. The words have changed, but the attitude and belief is still there.
I think the building symbolizes power, control and stability for many in the church. It means we are something in the community. We are important and we would be missing if we were gone. Those last statements are important; however, what the church building often also represents is that we are in control. And that is the crux of the problem: are we really in control? Should we be in control?
Letting go of the building is a symbolic letting go of centralized power. Rather, when we decentralize power, we allow for power-sharing among members, but more importantly, there is freedom for the work of the Spirit and an acceptance that control does not happen in an office, a sanctuary, or a Sunday School room—control is something that is shared, empowered by the Holy Spirit—and even at times, let go of.
I’m not suggesting everyone go out and sell their buildings. However, I am suggesting we let go of the concept of building ownership, letting go of the phrase “being good stewards of the building” with its connotations of power and ownership as the focus of our work and even our identity. I think churches should get out of the renting business and instead see themselves as building partnerships. We need partnerships with other congregations, ballet studios, artists, non-profits, childcare centers and others that might use our building. When we are simply landlords, it is hard (if not impossible) to do ministry because we are worried about what might happen to our building, what kind of damage might happen or what needs to be cleaned up and who will pay for it.
When we are partners, we recognize that God is the one in control. We recognize opportunities for ministry are not just ours but are everyone’s and that we all can be involved. We recognize that we are all on the same side—trying to promote God’s goodness and beauty and love and justice in a world that needs it. We recognize true stewardship of all of our gifts and are interested in working together to create a community center, a place of worship, a place of peace and contemplation, or whatever we envision lead by the Holy Spirit, together.