May 8, 2013 by cbbeard
Tomorrow our usable building space on our church campus will shrink. The portable building we’ve used for offices, meetings, workspace, and occasional classes has been split into two pieces and will be towed away. There are no plans to expand our building; we are intentionally reducing the size of our church campus.
Five years ago that would have freaked me out. The thought of a shrinking church campus had horrible implications in my mind; surely the only churches that would intentionally shrink their space were the ones that were struggling with attendance and/or church finances. That’s because five years ago I still believed that a sign of a successful church was a growing campus. One of the “feathers in the cap” for a minister was overseeing a building campaign and the bigger the buildings and campus the better.
But tomorrow, our usable building space will shrink, and I’m not panicking. In fact, I am celebrating! And so here are five reasons I’m excited our church campus is shrinking:
1. Our actions as a church are matching our definition of church.
I’ve been a part of the church my entire life and if I had a nickel for every time someone said or taught a derivative of “the church isn’t the building, it’s the people” I would be able to fund an ambitious church building program with the proceeds. The problem is that even though we said “the church is people” we still did 99.9% of “church stuff” in the church building.
George Hunsberger in the book The Church Between Gospel and Culture defined three perspectives of the church: Reformation Heritage, Contemporary Variation, and Missionary Vision (Hunsberger, 1996, p. 337). In a nutshell, the “Reformation Heritage” perspective has defined church as “a place where certain things happen” and the “Contemporary Variation” has adapted that to church as “a vendor of religious goods and service.” The last perspective, “Missionary Vision” is very similar to what we claimed to believe; that the church is the people of God partnering in his mission.
Our church space is shrinking because we have taken the beginning steps of the journey from “Contemporary Variation” to “Missionary Vision” by moving more of what we do outside of the walls of the church building. Church is now “happening” in homes and coffeehouses and other public spaces across our community. This shift doesn’t complete our intent to “be the church” instead of “going to church,” but it is a very good start.
2. Our church is less insulated from the world.
Because we are moving outside the walls of our building, we are coming on contact with people that we never would have otherwise. One example is a group that planned a gathering in a city park. Within minutes of arriving, the group was playing and talking with another family they had just met. The only connection they had to that point was that they were both in the same park at the same time. If that group had decided to picnic on the church grounds, they never would have made that contact.
Certainly everyone comes in contact with people from the “real world” on a regular basis. But there is just something about a group of Christ-followers coming in contact with the “real world” together, especially when the wide majority of “together” time has taken place within the safety and isolation of a church auditorium or classroom.
3. Our church is getting to know one another better.
Where do you “hang out” with your friends and family? How did your relationship with those you love grow? I’m guessing your quality time didn’t take place in a lecture-style auditorium. I’m fairly sure your love for one another didn’t develop around a folding table, sitting in folding chairs in a room with a whiteboard.
I’m not saying those settings are evil, but I will never forget the first Bible Study we hosted in our home. There were 18 adults in our living room and 24 kids running around and I thought “wow, this feels different!” And I’ve continually found that when we are meeting at “Jake and Kari’s house” rather than “Classroom 3” that people are more relaxed and relationship-building takes place more easily and organically.
I think it’s a little similar to going to school; you certainly have classes and school events in common with your friends, and those things absolutely add to your bond. But your best friends were the ones you spent time with outside of the school building, going to lunch or at your house. I think the same sociological reality is true of the church as well!
4. Our church is practicing good stewardship.
Reggie McNeal in his book The Present Future questions the stewardship of spending money on buildings “to put people in for an hour or two each week (we call it “educational space”) when the most effective spiritual formation does not occur in these settings. The local church already has more Sunday School space than it needs, and people are already paying for it. It’s called a home mortgage” (2003, p. 87). I would add that a people picking up a scone and a cup of coffee before a study in the coffeehouse is a pretty good “rent” to pay for space as well, not to mention the benefit of the contact with the “real world” as discussed earlier.
By moving much of our “church stuff” away from the church campus, we’ve made space for other things, like offices, in our main building. So not only are we benefiting from the real-world contact and the more intimate settings for our spiritual formation, but we are also saving thousands of dollars by “shrinking” our space.
5. Our church is moving forward.
Five years ago I would have been freaked out about shrinking the campus because I associated it with church decline. But today I am excited because I think the shrinking of our campus is a sign that our community of faith is moving forward. It’s a small step towards changing our scorecard from the “3 B’s” of church success (Buildings on campus, Bucks in the offering plate, and Butts in the seats) to a more biblical scorecard of making more and better disciples. It’s a small step in the journey from “going to church” to “being the church.” And it’s a small step for me as a minister in aligning my goals more and more with God’s goals and less and less with my distorted concepts of success.
Don’t get me wrong, I am no condemning churches with building programs or large campuses. I believe God can and will do great things in and through churches who are obedient to him regardless of size and format. But I have come to the realization that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27) and that often what might be seen as “weakness” or “decline” in the world’s eyes might just be the kind of success and progress God is looking for!
What do you think? What advantages do you see for moving “church stuff” off-campus? What advantage is there for keeping church activities on-campus? What other ways does God’s success seem like failure through the world’s eyes?