Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Faith Works 10-8

Faith Works 10-8-11

Jeff Gill


Oh, Why Bother. (Here's Why.)




Let's just sell all the churches and worship in living rooms.


Seriously, I got a bunch of e-mail and comments that were variations on exactly that from last week's column.


Congregations, especially congregations with buildings and staff (clergy and otherwise) and mailing lists, were given a number of ongoing developments to think about last Saturday. Some of you said "Tomaytoh" while others said "Tomahtoe," but a few suggested we call the whole thing off.


Before we dismiss our local, loveable cranks as, say . . . cranks, let's think about that. Why not get rid of the cost and bother and misplaced focus on buildings?


One obvious answer is size. Even a small, struggling congregations has 25 to 40 people a Sunday, and it's the rare living room which has the capacity for that many.


One of the challenges facing church leadership is that not long ago an average Sunday attendance of 70 was enough to sustain a building and a full-time pastor with seminary training. That number has shot up to more like 120 or more if you're talking about a full salary package with health insurance, and that's not even talking anymore about a custodian and secretary.


So churches up to 200 a Sunday in the pews are going to part-time jobs for office staff, building staff, and even for clergy. Meanwhile, if you have "only" 175 per week in worship, you sure aren't going to find even a basement rumpus room in a member's house that will fit you all.


Your fellowship can duck the whole building deal with renting space in a school auditorium or catering space that isn't used on Sundays; some new church starts find an older congregation which is willing to make a deal for Sunday afternoons, and that's very common in Ohio for ethnic congregations of Korean or Hispanic members.


You avoid certain complications with that sort of borrowed space approach, but you pick up new ones. And until you've worked with it, you can't calculate the very real expenditure of leadership & volunteer time spent in setting up and tearing down in gyms or hallways or theaters every weekend. That time and energy comes out of possibilities that you never quite can plumb, but that loss is not nothing.


A truly hard-nosed church building skeptic might say "why not keep establishing house churches, and just never have any one get bigger than can fit, but the growth is in an expanding number of home meetings?" You'll not have an organ or stained glass windows, but you'll have none of the limitations of those walls, either.


Xenos Christian Fellowship in Columbus is built along that model, with a few of their home groups here in Licking County. They argue that they aren't a large church with home groups, but a connection of home groups that occasionally has large meetings.


I have to count myself a rueful pragmatist on church life. You can focus, as a Frank Viola does, on home groups, or you can be a Joel Osteen and celebrate size and expansion as an end in itself. What I see in Christian history are home churches that grew to where they had to purchase a home, keep it looking that way outside, but gut it out inside to create a worship space (you can online search for "Dura-Europos" to see our earliest example).


Once you have social approval, such as under Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century, you find yourself with an option to set up shop in underutilized basilicas or repurposed temples, and next thing you know you're in a giant physical plant and the report of the trustees is half the monthly board meeting.


So moving into old pagan temples left vacant, bad idea (you'll have to put a new roof on in no time); putting up something bigger than a residential home but smaller than a blimp hanger, good idea (though some pastors have blimp-like ideas about what is a sustainable size).


Rather than wish them gone, I wonder what would happen if we look at our buildings, our real estate, our gathered fellowship -- with all the parking and sanctuary temperature management problems that these imply, and if you consideration led to . . . stewardship.


Perhaps a vital personal faith needs to be tied to the vitality that can, that may, that SHOULD grow from taking seriously a shared obligation: to take care of a classic building, or to carefully select and affirm a staff that's right-sized and well-purposed to your particular fellowship's calling?


In other words, annoying though they can be, you probably need a church more than you think. Big-C church and small-c church alike, building-church or sense of membership and commitment to a shared vision-church. If irritation helps oysters create pearl, what might going to church help you to do?


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him what (or who) annoys you at church to, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

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