Today I posted a blog entry at a companion site proposing specific ways in which churches can exhibit love. These ideas involve setting up the congregation’s property in a way that is designed to do just that.
The two ideas I mentioned are… using ‘spare’ land to grow food to give to the needy and other purposes and build low income housing right on the congregation’s premises. I discuss and to an extent defend these ideas there, and don’t worry, I’ve got more ideas coming down the pike. You may comment on those ideas here or there.
What I did dwell on there but would like to spend just a moment speaking to here is this premise: “Congregational facilities should reflect the mission of the church. Where you put your money says something about what you value. You can tell a lot about a church and the Church by looking at its buildings and where it puts its money.”
Now, I don’t think this is a controversial premise. Moreover, I don’t think it applies only to the Church. I think this is just a general truism about money and people. But I ask: if true, what message is being communicated about what the Church values in view of the property usage by many, if not most, churches in America?
I think clearly the emphasis is in three places: 1. Church services. 2. Fellowship. 3. Classroom instruction.
The standard configuration of most congregations in America is Sanctuary+Fellowship Hall+Classroom Instruction+Office space for pastor and program administers.
Of note, this configuration reflects the reality that, by and large, the property is only utilized for a few hours a week (except for the offices, of course). Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights see the most action, with sporadic activity in the class rooms the rest of the time. The whole configuration, with all of its massive capital investment, is designed to facilitate fewer than 10 hours of activity.
Now, let us remember, humans are (as C.S. Lewis said) amphibians. We are not merely sacks of flesh, nor are we purely spiritual entities. Not even in the afterlife will we be purely spiritual entities- our resurrection means also new bodies. And we are not gnostics: we Christians do not believe that matter is inherently evil; indeed, God created it and called it good.
Our physical surroundings have a spiritual impact. Our physical habits are intertwined with our spiritual habits. This can be proved in any number of ways, if demonstration be necessary. But the key thing here is that we do not merely structure our physical surroundings to reflect our values, but that structure in turn reinforces and perpetuates these same values- to the exclusion and/or un-emphasis of others.
So, the configuration of the properties of our nation’s congregations reflect, reinforce, and perpetuate the values of their members. What is being said when the congregation’s primary- or even only- activities occur within a small fraction of time? Just as importantly, if not more importantly, what ‘habits’ are being reinforced and perpetuated when a person’s interaction with the congregation consists solely of 1-3 hours a week.
[Side point: and then consider the youth, especially those in public schools, who are molded by 40-50 hours of secular education. Seriously, why would we even be surprised that 1-3 hours of interaction with explicit Christian surroundings could compete with that? So what are you going to do about it?]
Given the above, we should not be surprised at all when our members seem to be apathetic and seemingly unable or unwilling to live as Christians in larger society. In fact, we may condemn it with our words and urge it to be otherwise, but all the while, they are hearing the real message loud and clear. It is communicated by the configuration of the property, which in turn was established to reflect the values of the congregation. Each member of the congregation- amphibians all- get the implicit message imprinted on them every week.
For you see, as powerful as words are, what we do, or see done, is powerful too.
We should not be surprised when Christians get the idea that the Church is irrelevant to the practical issues people face on a daily basis and that the only thing it really cares about is ‘salvation.’ Besides the fact that there are some Christians who actually say just that, how we have structured our time together and how we have configured our property and how we have invested our money say it loud and clear.
But most Christians admit that the Church should love our neighbors, that it should care for the sick, that it should defend the oppressed, etc., etc. The world does not believe it because it sees how it spends its money and organizes its spaces. In fact, many Christians don’t believe it either, for the same reasons.
Rethinking the impact of our buildings and property usage as Christians in our local congregations and deliberately considering ways to exhibit- and thus reinforce- other aspects of the Church’s mission may be a critical step towards reversing current negative trends in Christianity in America.