I have a strange fascination with church buildings. I grew up attending worship in a very traditional looking church modeled after one in colonial Williamsburg. Community Christian Church in North Canton, Ohio, was breathtakingly beautiful. This Norman Rockwell-like sanctuary was my childhood vision of what churches look like.
My student ministry church was a tiny un-air-conditioned country church south of Dallas. The average worship attendance there was just ten people, including two sisters, their husbands, and a few other eighty-year-olds who felt the need to keep the church going because their parents had helped build the place. I would not say that the building was a blessing to the spiritual life of their church.
My first call came as the associate minister at Rush Creek Christian Church in Arlington, TX. I still remember the peace and ‘sense of home’ I felt the first Sunday I attended worship in the congregation’s new sanctuary. It had been built with the help of Church Extension (now, Disciples Church Extension Fund) and was modern and full of natural light. This new worship space helped foster a vibrant and growing community of faith.
Then, in 2001, I was called to plant a church. My call wasn’t to build a new church building but rather to build a new congregation of Christ-followers. I had to rethink what it meant to be ‘a church.’ In the first five years of that congregation’s life, we worshiped in my home, in the basement of a real estate office, in a storefront, in a field and, eventually, in a movie theater where we settled in. I remember taking my five-year-old son to a movie one afternoon. As we approached the theater, my son said, “Daddy, are we going to church?” To him, a movie theater was what a church looked like; it was the only church building he had ever known.
The members and attenders of our new congregation took great pride in the fact that we worshiped in a movie theater. It gave us a unique vibrancy. Still, from day one, most of our congregation worked tirelessly toward the goal of one day being able to have our own ‘church building.’ In our fifth year, we built our first building for worship and ministry with the help of Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF). It had neither the size, nor splendor, of my previous two churches but it was still a great first building.
Entering this new space opened up new possibilities, especially for children and our youth ministry. By our second year in the building, we were welcoming more than 100 children a year for Vacation Bible School. We also hosted fall festivals, and community Easter egg hunts and Christmas pageants. These were all ministries we struggled with before having our own building. Moving into that space helped us double in size within the first couple of years of being there. Indeed, the building blessed our ministry. Yet, it wasn’t all a blessing. Some of the folks who were part of our early ministry faded away after we built our facility. Perhaps, they felt as though we had accomplished our goal; achieved our purpose. Others in our congregation became possessive of the building. We had the usual disagreements over changing decorations or wall colors.
The ministry of the gospel is one of movement. However, buildings are not very movable which is why they can lead to stagnation. Over the past few years, as a DCEF Building and Capital Services Advisor, I have consulted with probably close to a hundred congregations about their facilities. I have seen buildings of all shapes and sizes, and in all conditions. They are holy places—worship spaces where people were married, where prayers for healing were offered and heard, where children and grandchildren were baptized into faith, and where one bid a final farewell to loved ones. But these same buildings that have been a blessing in the lives of so many are often now found to be much bigger than needed, too expensive to operate, hopelessly out of date, energy inefficient, and badly in need of maintenance and repair.
Our buildings often have not changed or been updated to suit the needs and tastes of a new generation. What was once a blessing has now become a burden and a barrier to effective ministry. Worse yet, these buildings often become the focus of dissension, disunity, and debate. We need to remind ourselves that our buildings, at their best, are living, breathing organisms that need constant work and, yes, change. Buildings bless ministry when they evolve over time to meet the ever-changing needs of congregations. Buildings curse congregations when they become idols and impede the march of the gospel.
So, are church buildings a blessing or a curse? The honest answer is, “Yes.” Church buildings can be both. We, at DCEF, are dedicated to helping congregations continue to make new and updated holy spaces that efficiently address missional needs. We welcome the opportunity to work with your congregation to assist you in keeping your ministry moving toward new and uniquely vibrant life. We welcome the opportunity to make your building a blessing both to the church and the community.
Rev. Dr. Craig Walls consults on loans, fundraising campaigns, and other services available from DCEF. Prior to joining DCEF, Craig spent more than 15 years as pastor of SouthPointe Christian Church in Lincoln, NE, where he engaged in building projects, capital campaigns, and creative land lease/use opportunities for the congregation. Craig received his BA from Hiram College, a Master of Divinity from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, and a Doctor of Ministry in Homiletics from McCormick Theological Seminary. Craig and his wife, Dr. Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, President of William Jewell College, make their home in Liberty, Missouri, with their sons Alec and John.
For 137 years, DCEF has offered mission-driven building and capital planning services to congregations and organizations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Together with our investors and partners, we are Disciples helping Disciples.