Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What if things changed?

I'm in and out of giant church buildings on a fairly regular basis.

Not long ago I walked from one end of such a building to the other. It was quite a trek! This particular "campus" is enormous. No doubt the structure cost several hundred million dollars.

That's a long way from the "upper room."

The architecture was beautiful. The construction excellent. The looks of everything betrayed the continual presence of a hard-working, full-time staff devoted to tending to the property. It was an amazing operation, to say the least.

Church buildings much like this one cover the landscape of the nation. Not all turn out as grand, but still church real estate holdings boggle the imagination in terms of scale and investment costs.

This is not intended as a tired, diatribe against church buildings, I promise. While serving churches in New Orleans and Richardson, Texas, I oversaw building renovations and new construction, the cost of which ran in the millions of dollars.

It is, rather, a reflection, a "what if" of sorts on the nature of faith communities in general at the beginning of the 21st century.

People often post here about how the church should be the front-line and primary responder to the needs of poor people in the United States and around the world. As I've said before, the economics just don't add up on that vision. Too much of the church's resources and wealth goes to facilities and professional staff for anything approaching that to be possible.

But, what if things changed for churches and denominations?

What if a life of faith meant less organization, less institutional support and structure and more individual action and small group engagement? What if people of faith got together in homes, in small groups instead of in buildings designed mainly for larger groups and gatherings only a few times a week?

I wonder what might happen if just a few churches that owned large real estate holdings sold out? Literally sold their property, banked the funds, organized more organically and then developed new and effective strategies for pursuing lives of faith that involved new kinds of contact with the community around them--how would that look?

What would it take to do that? What would it mean? What would be the potential impact? What would be lost? What gained? What major obstacles and objections would such congregations face?

This notion has been in my head for years. The idea that a network of smaller cell groups could blanket a city, nurture the faith of members, commit to serve those around them and work for a more just and equitable community. . .it may not be easy or even practical, given our long experience and our typical expectations, but I can't help but think the impact could be enormous.

I do know one thing. The income from the sale of just one building like I walked through not long ago, placed in the hands of capable leaders and community developers, would go a long way toward leveraging the start of the renewal of an entire inner city neighborhood that sits in ruin today.

From house-to-house for the sake of the cities.

Might sound really "out there," but, as I say, it's not a notion I can shake very easily.

Go ahead, call me Alice, as in Wonderland.

(Isaiah 58:1-12)



Mark said...

Treasures in heaven versus treasures on earth. What a concept. Jesus would give a wholehearted "Amen"!

Chris said...

I think that would be very hard to do. Say you have a church of 1500 people. If each small group had 20 people that would be 75 groups to oversee. It is not working too well in my church.

Not only that, the world is headed for hard times like we have not seen in decades. Obama's Socialist Plan of 2009 is geared to punish the people who produce through high taxes. The theory is that it will make things more "just and equitable." In reality, the producers will have no incentive to continue to start businesses and take financial risks because it will be taken away in taxes to give to the non-producers.

In addition, after the government gets through printing money, we will have inflation like never before. It will take a load of money to buy a loaf of bread.

I only hope the American people will come out of their hero worship mentality, their hypnotic trance, to see what Obama is doing. He is changing America and not for the better.

It wouldn't take long for the banked money to be gone, due to inflation, and everyone would be equally miserable.

Steve said...

your speculation is only strange, because we have strayed so far form Jesus' ideas about the kingdom of God here on earth.

His idea was that when people gave money in seeking eternal life, it did not go to building projects, but to poor people ( community development at grass roots level?)

We also seem to have strayed form Paul's clear directives concerning the raising of funds...to meet the needs of poor believers.

You are dangerous, and subversive, Larry, even though you present it so gently. If people listen to you, and do not wait for the ( heavily invested) church leadership to do the right thing, and start abandoning the white washed tombs in droves and hanging out with he poor, the lame, the least, the last and the lost, ... you might get crucified!

You are dangerous and subversive to the general order of things. Paul called them principalities and powers.

Steve said...

Chris: Where is this banked money you worry about disappearing?

Read the newspapers, and wake up!

Anonymous said...

chris, we all give up! how could you turn this post by Larry toward President Obama? But you did! Hate must be tough to live with. I can see why "its not working too well" in your church! maybe we invest in and build buildings and giant institutions so that we can protect ourselves from the radical nature of the life and call of Jesus. in my opinion, he would be shocked at the modern church and would move to the margins to find and further the kingdom of God, something altogether different.

Casey McCollum said...

As a 28 year old, I am telling you right now that Larry's articulation of faith and ecclesial life is EXACTLY WHAT MY GENERATION IS HUNGRY FOR. The church will continue to lose us unless things change.

Daniel Gray said...

seeing as how taxation has EVERYTHING to do with the church using its resources for things that matter...

In other news... I am always frustrated with the amount of internal spending that churches are consumed with. The inner city church in St. Louis I attend currently uses an old Catholic church, and while it's an old, ornate building, I hardly think a lot of money has been put into it.

On Sunday nights, I'm part of an interdenominational small group that meets in people's homes. No one is paid, we don't need a building, are our studies are always very good. It's not easy, but as far as I'm concerned, that's all anyone needs for a church service.

Less is more.

Ms. Embry said...

Your vision as described here completely embodies something I've felt and believed in and even searched for subconsciously but haven't quite been able to verbalize. However, I don't think you're Alice at all because this very thing is happening here in our city...scores of people are feeling these stirrings of a whole new movement in their souls. I've recently been introduced to a group of young people right here in Dallas that also have caught a vision of this movement. I attended one of their house church gatherings in the uptown area and was completely refreshed and excited about the completely different approach toward "church". I say "different", but it's not really, as it's actually more closely in line with what we read of in the New Testament. I encourage you and others to just check this movement out at www.storylinecommunity.com. I think you will find a group of people open and willing to rethinking our institutions and traditions and who are willing to lead the way in a long-lost approach to "church." Pay close attention to the "What We're About" section of the site...I think you will be encouraged by the values you find described there.

Anonymous said...

Larry, I have thought about your post a good bit since I read it early this morning. Where I live some of the largest buildings in our area are actually in the inner city. I am thinking in particular of one very large Church of God in Christ which is located in the Downtown area of Memphis. It seems to serve as a anchor for the community. The building seems to fulfill a stabilizing function for the community. One of my first questions is "what is the building being used for?" Where I attend we have a fairly modest building that is paid for and has been for years. Especially in the inner city I am not sure it would be a good thing if the church buildings suddenly went away, but I do find it hard to justify the multi millions of dollars that are spent on buildings for no other real purpose that to meet our creature comforts. There is one particular mammoth church which can easily be seen from the express way which is simply called "Fort God."


Charles Kiser said...

Why Larry, I think that's a wonderful idea! :)

I think what you're describing will likely happen as the next generation of new churches evolve into more grassroots, relational forms of church.

Phil said...

Larry - I'm in! Let's do it!

Chris - Why do we need to control what happens in these cells?

Anonymous said...

Organic Church by Neil Cole is a great place to start.

They are out there.


Paige N said...

Better yet -- what if churches had to pay real estate tax? In most cities, they occupy incredibly valuable land and take it off the tax rolls. Imagine if the churches had to simply pay taxes on that land: local governments would get a real boon.

Talk about stimulus package!

I don't think churches should lose their non-profit status. The state does not need to tax their operations. However, when they take away property that would otherwise provide revenue to the state, there should be some form of repayment. After all, the lost revenue is not made up by the value of services that churches provide (which mostly are limited to worship, which is outside of the state's purview).

What if churches had to prove that they contribute more to the state than they cost in the form of lost taxes? Other non-profits have to do this by filing the Form 990. Why not churches?

Where is the accountability among this mammoth institutions of mammon?

Anonymous said...


We can all read Ayn Rand for ourselves. It really is not necessary to summarize for us on each and every post. :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Charles K. It's gonna happen; just a matter of time. My sons' generation is simply not going to Church, yet find spiritual relationships in the most refreshing ways and places. And many are doing more for the Kingdom than all the "Christians" of my generation combined. Truth is, it could happen sooner if church leaders didn't feel they owned the institution (i.e. Chris's need to control what happens outside the building) and stepped out of the way. Elders and preachers will answer to God for shutting the door to the Kingdom in people's faces. Let's continue to dream and do our part in tearing down the most subversive entity to God's work...the Church (capital C).

--Steve Sr. (age 61)