This post is part of a series exploring “The Bible as our only rule of practice.” We are asking the question, what do we actually mean by this?
A factor that you may or may not be familiar with is the difference between
prescriptive teaching’ and ‘descriptive practice.’ Prescriptive teachings are what we are explicitly told to do. Description is about what people actually did.
Many people believe that what really matters is what we are told to do (the prescriptive) and when we are not told how to do it, we have some freedom. In this case the teaching of how to live and practice ministry is the ‘rule.’ This view generally has a lot going for it, but is we’ve often dismissed the ‘descriptive’ of New Testament practice as being substantially culturally bound or primitive (in a pejorative sense). I think we ought to consider both factors.
Let’s talk today about where the church meets.
In the New Testament, the church is not specifically told where they ought to gather (prescriptive), but we can see that the earliest congregations typically met in homes (descriptive).
“Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.” 1 Corinthians 16:19
Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.” Colossians 4:15
There have been house church movements throughout history and today, but on the whole they seem to be the exception in the Western world.
Most Christians in the United States meet in buildings that we call churches. These are of many different sizes and styles but are physical spaces set aside for Christian gatherings and ‘worship services.’
Often one of the things new congregations (church plants) look forward to is purchasing or constructing a building. It’s something that seems normative and even important to us.
So, New Testament practice was to meet in homes. This is normal practice but was not specifically commanded.
Today normal practice is to meet in dedicated church buildings.
How should we think about the gap between the two and what ought to be normative today?
Let’s take a look at some of the possible advantages and drawbacks of a dedicated building.
Advantages to church owned property
Church owned buildings can be of any size, supporting larger groups than homes could.
Larger congregations can pool more resources for various purposes, including support of ministries and ministers.
A church building offers a consistent community presence – people know it’s there.
A dedicated building allows various gatherings to happen throughout the week without needing to work around the schedule of a homeowner.
We can offer hospitality by offering our spaces to families and organizations in the community.
I’m sure that are other advantages that I’m not thinking of. But there are some major drawbacks or possible disadvantages of church owned buildings.
Challenges to church owned property
Buildings are expensive. Expensive to buy or build and expensive to maintain. Many congregations have substantial debt (mortgages). Everything requires repairs over time. And honestly I think about this every time we need to make a substantial repair. Recently we spent $20,000 to repave our aging parking lot. I think about what that money could do for people who really need help just to survive. I think that we should take an honest accounting of how much of God’s money we really use to purchase, maintain and pay the utilities on our church buildings. Is that how God would want us to spend our money? If so, why do we think so? Challenging thoughts.
Also in the area of finances, the perceived need for a building can slow down church multiplication. If it costs several hundred thousand dollars for each new congregation, that’s a significant hurdle.
Another drawback is that having a church building can lend itself toward poor theology in certain areas. Commonly we act and speak like church is a place we go rather than a people we are. We act like some places are sacred (God is there) and others aren’t (the rest of life). Many congregations argue about what’s appropriate in the ‘sanctuary’ – coffee? Snacks? Kids running? Loud talking? Pews or chairs? I don’t think people would have these questions so much about someone’s living room or backyard.
Larger buildings can be a challenge to relational intimacy. When church is limited only by the size of the space people can gather, congregations can grow as large as the building they can afford. To connect people, small groups of some sort are required. In house type churches, intimacy is nonnegotiable. And the Bible requires deep personal connections brothers and sisters to obey all of the prescribed ‘one another’ teachings.
So, how should we think about this?
I’d like to offer a few thoughts or recommendations for your consideration.
Realize that you don’t have to have a church building in order to have a real congregation. Nobody in the first century, New Testament church did so far as we know. And the Bible is supposed to be our norm of faith and practice. The church expanded rapidly without them.
If you wanted to be on the safe side of New Testament practice, you’d want to pass on the building. No, they’re not forbidden. But neither are they commended.
If you are leading or are part of a congregation that doesn’t currently own a building, think long and pray hard about whether or not you should buy one. Count the cost. Take that honest number and think about what you could do with that amount of money to help people in real need and honestly ask what Jesus would do if he were you. What would Paul do?
If your congregation owns a building (or multiple buildings), ask how you are going to purposely and regularly remind people that this is not where God dwells? Will you be able to consistently remind your people that all of life is lived in the presence and worship of God?
Additionally for those who own buildings, are you maximizing the investment that you’ve made for real, meaningful ministry? Or is your church building sitting empty most of the week?
New Testament practice is undeniably different than our practices today. Yet we act as though our current practices are normative and New Testament practice is weird, outdated or somehow less than.
Let’s begin to view New Testament practice as being the normal base-line. And when we go beyond that, let’s see it for what it is: an opportunity that we’d better be really sure we’re being good stewards of and making sure that we do our best to prevent unacceptable theological beliefs.
If we made these shifts in thinking, it would change our current defaults quite a bit.
What do you think?