As I was driving with my wife yesterday, I made a comment that had been bugging me all day.
“You know,” I said, “A church sanctuary is the most wasted piece of architecture you’ll see on the landscape.”
Now my wife knows not to go wild when I say things like that. She didn’t ask me if I’d started to hate church, or if I was giving up on Christianity. Some of you may want to do so, but bear with me.
What is the purpose of our church sanctuaries? What are they designed for? Well, they’re a place where we go to worship. Indeed, I really enjoy church services. I’m one of those folks who will look up a nearby church when I’m traveling and go out of my way to be in worship on Sunday morning. It’s not because I have to, or because someone’s watching me. I simply enjoy worship services. I especially enjoy visiting a church I know nothing about and watching what their service is like. It’s no great merit; it’s just fun! (OK, I’m weird.)
But picture the standard church sanctuary, steeple, pews, pulpit, altar area, and so forth. The building, the room, and the furniture all serve for a couple of hours per week. Many of you will point out that you have other meetings in that sanctuary–committee meetings, youth meetings, classes, and so forth. But notice that the room isn’t really designed for those things, and you’re actually working around the architecture and interior design in order to use that space for that purpose. It’s true that there are many newer buildings, especially amongst small, non-denominational churches that are much more flexible, and much better designed for multiple uses. Even so, I would ask you to look at the schedule of use for your office building, the conference room at your place of work, and similar structures, and consider the cost involved and the amount of use.
I don’t have statistics in hand, but in my experience, churches spending as little as 5% of their money on outreach regard themselves as “mission oriented.” Add to that evangelism and budgeting for charitable projects, and you’ll get the total spending for outreach. (Don’t forget the salaries of staff members who are assigned to such tasks.) Look at your own church budget. How much of your money goes to maintaining facilities and paying people to maintain the membership. How much of the spending goes to people in the club?
I had the privelege of speaking at a church a couple of years ago where the pastor told me their goal was to get to 50% spending for missions/outreach by the time their congregation was 10 years old. I know at the time they were working on acquiring a facility to use to house people coming out of drug rehabilitation to help them transition to the “real” world. They supported the Pacesetters Bible School mission to support orphans in eastern Europe. That was a small new church.
Very often “spiritual people” don’t want to get involved in budget issues in your church. But when you’re going out and inviting people to church and they don’t seem very interested, you might consider what the appearance of your church and your church budget is telling them about your priorities. The good news of the gospel is not that there’s a church in your neighborhood and you can attend worship. It’s rather that God loves you enough to reach out to you, and according to James chapter 2, we’re supposed to be on the same program. In general, however, our church budgets don’t support that notion. If spiritual people want to be heard, they’re going to have to get involved in the money process and force a change.
Please don’t hear a liberal vs conservative message here. My problem is not whether you are preaching the gospel or practicing it. I do believe you should be doing both, and that it’s very scriptural to do both. My problem is with the amount of money spent on maintenance, on keeping the members of the club happy vs the amount spent on outreach.
I think that God has placed sufficient resources in the churches of America’s Christians that we could make a serious dent in the various problems we moan about when we get together and meet. In United Methodist churches (I’m Methodist, I fulfill my membership covenant, I get to complain!), we complain about declining membership while our budgets show pretty clearly that our concern is not with bringing people in, or helping people in general. Our concern is with maintaining the ones inside. It’s not an accident, however, that the gospel commission starts with the word “Go!” (For those who like to nitpick me, yes, I will defend this statement from the Greek.)
If our budgets, our buildings, our activities, and our lives reflected the gospel, then we wouldn’t have so much trouble getting people to listen. We have the power to turn the world upside down, to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives (physical and spiritual), and to free the prisoners. Given what we have available, the state of our world is nothing short of scandalous.