I didn’t grow up going to church much. I did early, but the majority of my upbringing did not involve church, even on Christmas and Easter. But as I grew older, began thinking for myself more, and searching for meaning and connection, I guess you could say I found religion. The connection I found through a community seeking to live out the Jesus story was real and it stuck, so much so that I’ve basically been working in full time ministry my whole post-college life. In all of it, I’ve sought to give to others what was given to me: Space to explore their spirituality in the Christian narrative and to find abundant life in it. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the gist.
But there’s been an issue since day one in my work, going all the way back to being a Senior High Youth Director to today being the solo pastor of a congregation. And that problem is pretty simply defined: Getting people to show up. My entrance into ministry was at a time when the American Church was at beginning of its steep and steady decline. There is no one reason for this, but the more I work in this industry, the more I believe there is one singular issue that cannot be ignored (ehem, White Supremacy, but that’s a whole other blog post), and which we have a mountain to climb to get over. That is issue is our buildings and grounds.
For the first few hundred years of the Christian Church, there were no buildings, outside of some very small, simple structures. People gathered in spaces, but there was no centralized building, which meant that wherever the people were, that’s where the church was. But a strange thing happened in the early part of the 4th Century. A guy named Constantine rose to power, and he became the first Emperor to embrace Christianity. With it came the opportunity for Christians to own property, and out of all this rose what are essentially our first true church buildings, and so much more. As Justo Gonzalez puts it, “Christian worship began to be influenced by imperial protocol”. Gonzalez describes how incense became part of worship, which had been used as a sign of respect for the emperor; ministers moved from simple clothing to more luxurious garments; the communion table became an “altar”.
And it worked. Or “worked”, I guess you could say. People began flocking to these buildings, seeking to be baptized into the community. The priests were overwhelmed to the degree that Gonzalez says, “…there was little time to prepare for them baptism, and even less to guide them in the Christian life” (p. 144). It’s hard to know the merits of this influx of new converts, perhaps all or most of it was genuine. Perhaps it stuck for many like it did for me in 1991. But suffice it say, Christianity was changing, and began what some scholars describe as the Constantinian Era. About this era Gonzalez says, “even now, in the twenty-first century, we are going through crises connected with the end of that long era.” (p.131). The most stark of those consequences for me comes from these words in Gonzalez’s account of Church History: “On occasion, local residents were ordered to contribute to the building of churches with labor and materials” (p.145).
The Church was no longer building a people but became about peopling a building.
And it’s been that way ever since. Now, this does not mean no good has come from it, but what it does mean is there are two real problems embedded in big, elaborate church buildings (and by big, I even mean the relatively humble building in which my congregation currently worships), which I believe are at the root of 21st Century American Church crisis.
The first is a missional problem: Once we began building and peopling these structures, the mission of the church stopped being about “going” and became about “coming”. The Church was no longer going to the people, but the people were coming to the church. The mission to which Christ called his original disciples was one of going, moving through the world to immerse people in the character and nature of God and calling them to live in the sacrificial, fearless love incarnated in Christ’s life and teachings. With our buildings we stopped going, we stopped moving, outside of Imperialized “missions”, which at worst led to the Crusades and at best led to attempts to deconstruct and assimilate peoples to Western ways and ideologies.
The second is an institutional problem: When you start building big elaborate buildings, you gotta pay for them. As we’ve already seen, even in the early days, when the buildings were full, people were forced to contribute to the buildings. Fast-forward about 1,200 years and you have a Church offering what were called “indulgences”, which essentially was someone paying a priest off to ensure that they or their loved one would go to heaven. And what was the money used for? Helping the poor? No. It’s what funded St. Peters Cathedral in Rome. Ever been there? It’s beautiful. It’s incredible. And it’s the fruit of religious extortion.
The kind of people Jesus called us to be was a mobile one, was a homeless one. Like he was. Yet look what we’ve done: From the glorious, beautiful Cathedrals of Europe, to the massive campuses of evangelicalism, we’ve built a system that is no longer mobile but residential. As one preacher once put it, “we’ve domesticated Jesus”. We claim to be a people “going”, but the vast majority of resources and work revolves around an address. As long as we have these buildings and grounds, we will be forced to revolve ministry around filling them up. We cannot truly reimagine “church”, so long as “church” is defined by an address. And without flocks of people showing up to our buildings, we’re now uncertain of how to survive. Churches are all on different spots of the decline timeline, but by every metric we’re all in the same struggle, and without massive reform, it will catch up to us all.
Yes, we need somewhere to gather, but if we are truly a “going” people, where our gatherings happen should’t matter. It shouldn’t need to be a “prime location”; it shouldn’t have to be so nice and kept up that it “draws people”; it shouldn’t be a part of our identity beyond where its exits signs send us. Our gathering spaces should not be places that draw in, but should be places that send out. Yes, Jesus told us to go and make disciples, but nowhere in Jesus’ ministry does disciple making look anything like what we in the Western Church do. A disciple was effectively a homeless person, moving through communities, bringing healing, hope, and life. It was never about joining anything other than a movement of just that: healing, hope, and life. “The harvest is plentiful”, Jesus said, but guess what? Unlike his day, so are the laborers. We just need to stop dressing up the farm house and get out into the field of bringing healing, hope, and life to people, especially those our socio/political/religious systems overlook.