What are we building?

The building in the photograph doesn’t look like much. In fact, it doesn’t even exist any more. But it has quite a story to tell. And something to teach us about building the church and extending the kingdom.

I’ve been thinking a lot about buildings lately.

Here in southwestern Michigan, where we have spent a large part of the winter, the church has completed a major addition to the building, which in turn has enabled us to knock out the walls of the original structure, which is only ten years old, to create a much larger auditorium. This has created lots of excitement as it nears completion. And the Lord will use it in all sorts of ways.

The building in the photograph also has a very special place in my heart. It was actually a carpet showroom right in the middle of the medieval city of Durham in northern England. The factory that manufactured the carpet adjoined it.

Back in 1980, the young church I was leading was desperately looking for a place to meet, and through a series of what I can only describe as supernatural interventions, we were led to this empty and not very appealing building.

We leased it, reinforced it structurally and carried out renovations, and no sooner had the paint dried, Elaine and I were married in it.

It was an old, tired though solid building, but for a number of years, until the lease ran out and the building was torn down, it contained an extraordinary measure of life. Hundreds of young people, mostly university students, passed through its doors. Many were new converts. Lots of them went out out to do great things for God around the world. Churches in other cities and nations were eventually planted out of the congregation that met there - even another church in the same city which itself has had great influence. And the impact continues to this day.

The church was not the building - we were very clear on that - but the church needed the building.

I have always insisted that we should be very careful with our words. The church is the people, and it is never to be identified with the building it meets in. So let’s call it the “church building” and not the church. Or find some other name for it.

Emmanuel Church Durham now has a beautiful modern building, but the building is called the Durham Centre, in part to distinguish it from the church that meets in it.

Here’s what I think about church buildings. I’ll make a negative comment before moving on to a positive.

First, if we put buildings at the centre of our church life and feel we can’t have a church without a building, whatever building we have will become an albatross around our necks. We will mortgage ourselves to the hilt to get the building we want. But there’ll be nothing left for anything else. No money for missions, church planting, outreach to the poor, or support of translocal ministries. Not even enough to provide properly for the support of local pastoral leadership. This is what happens when the building becomes an end in itself. Few things are sadder than a building that remains when the congregation has died out - often because it put the building first.

But second, in the life of most churches, things come to a point where we need a building to facilitate the life of the church itself and what God is doing in its midst. And that’s where that old carpet showroom shone.

So here’s my point. Buildings are only a means to an end. They should be functional rather than fancy. They serve a wider purpose, the release of ministry and outreach into the world outside their four walls. Don’t look for a building until you can’t function without one. And once you have it, never let it take over.

I wish that old carpet showroom was still standing. Mostly so we could take our kids there and show them where our family began.

But I’m far, far happier that the church that used to meet there remains. And still shines to God’s glory.