“Our situation is different—people here expect a building.” In almost every country, among almost every people group I have visited in the past forty years, I’ve heard that statement from both locals and, frequently, missionaries on the field. Of course the associated thought is that a church can’t be effective in its context unless it meets in a building recognized by the culture as a church.
The question is whether a church is better served—or more to the point, whether it’s more effective—if it has a building whose singular or primary use is for meetings of the church. The answer is that requiring, expecting, and/or depending on a church building is more of a hindrance than a help in most church-planting situations on the mission field.
The Church is Not a Building
Whenever a non-believer has in his or her mind a definition of “church,” that definition is usually a building. The same is true for many Christians. Yet, too closely identifying a local body of Christ with a building diverts the focus from the identity of the church as a community of called-out ones, as well as the tasks and functions of the church. A building can easily demand more attention, more money, more emotion, and more division than that which is truly important.
Too closely identifying a local expression of the body of Christ with a building diverts the focus from the identity of the church and the tasks and functions of the church.
Of course, apart from situations of significant persecution, it’s very helpful to have a regular place to meet, so that Christians and community members know where to gather for worship services and other activities. However, that certainly does not require a special building. A home, an office, a borrowed or rented room, or set of rooms can fill the need well.
At no time does the New Testament give an indication that any local church of that era had a church building. Among the many references to a local church in the New Testament, the usual reference to location is the name of the city in which the church meets. In only five instances is a more specific location stated, and those instances all refer to a home (Rom. 16:5, Rom. 16:23, 1 Cor. 16:19, Col. 4:15, and Philem. 1:2). These were churches that happened to meet in someone’s house. They weren’t some kind of second-class entity called a “house church.” First-century Christians clearly did not experience the need for a special church building.
Buildings Are Costly
Often when a church decides to have its own building, the building demands time, energy, resources, and focus. Financial and other resources of the church are diverted largely to the building effort. Granted, in some settings a building appropriate to the culture—made of inexpensive local materials and constructed by church members—can be easily and quickly established, and those particular negatives are overcome.
However, sometimes the desire for a building is met by resources from the outside. Far too often the provision of a building by others engenders a sense of dependency in many aspects of the church’s ministry and inhibits the development of the church’s own abilities and resources. In some cases, members don’t sense the provided facilities are theirs and are even unable to maintain or use it well. Also, the obvious outside provision of a church building communicates to the non-believing community that Christianity is clearly the religion of outsiders, requiring the support of outsiders.
The obvious outside provision of a building communicates that Christianity is clearly the religion of outsiders, requiring the support of outsiders.
Occasionally those seeking to plant a church may think that providing a building will attract nonbelievers to come. Unused or empty buildings testify that this is seldom an effective means of outreach and evangelism. Actively going after the lost is much more effective than seeking to attract the lost to come.
Furthermore, in many settings nonbelievers are much more comfortable when they are invited or accompanied to a secular place to encounter Christianity, rather than to a church building that may be mysterious or even threatening to them. It’s not unusual for a nonbeliever to have negative perceptions about church buildings. They may, in many cases, face persecution by family or others simply for entering one.
Sometimes, Buildings are Required
There are occasions when there seems to be outside requirements for a church to have a church building. On rare occasions, governments may issue a law for churches to have buildings in order to be officially recognized by the government. In those cases, the church must determine the best way to relate to governmental expectations and requirements.
More often, though, an apparent outside requirement for a church building comes from ecclesiastical bodies (in the case of Baptist churches, usually associations, unions, or conventions). Such a requirement ignores what a church is and the functions and ministry of a church. In that situation, patient leadership and education must bring about a change in such a traditional requirement. Many examples around the world show that more effective and dynamic church planting happens when such an nonbiblical requirement is removed.
Requiring a building ignores what a church is and the functions and ministry of a church.
Buildings Must Not Divert Our Attention from Our Identity or Our Task
Is it required that a church have a building? Certainly not. Can having its own building be helpful to a church? Quite possibly. Is it wrong for a church to have its own building? Probably not. But it is wrong if it diverts the church from its major tasks of evangelism, discipleship, and planting other churches.
And it is wrong if many of the resources of the church—such as energy, attention, finances—are drained away in providing and maintaining a building. Furthermore, it’s wrong if the church exhibits pride in its building more than gratefulness for and worship of its Lord.
Yes, our situation may seem different, for the context in which we find ourselves expects a church to have its own building. But we are even more different than that. We are a New Testament church, not of this world, and we must show the world who is the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s with a building as a tool, but it’s never with the building as the substance of the church.
Dr. Clyde Meador served with the International Mission Board for forty-one years as a church planter, seminary teacher, area director, and regional leader in Central, South, and Southeast Asia. His twenty-seven years overseas were followed by fourteen years in the home office, serving as executive vice president, interim president, and advisor to the president. He retired in May 2016.