By Arron Chambers
I don”t know why I say certain things, I just do. I just can”t seem to help myself. I could say, “We need to be unified as we begin this project,” but instead I say, “We need to make sure we”re on the same page.” I could say, “I want to improve our worship service,” but instead I say, “It”s time to take our worship service to the next level.” I could ask my team to think creatively, but it”s much more fun to ask them to “think outside the box.”
To “think outside the box” is to see beyond the norm””to think new about something old. I”d like you to think new about the church. Think beyond the norm. As you think about the church and your church, I”d like you to think outside the box.
Tools and Obstacles
Now, you must understand something right from the start: I don”t hate church buildings. My dad was a preacher, and I grew up sitting on the second pew on the right side in a church building. We lived in a parsonage next to a church building, so I spent countless joy-filled hours playing in a church building. I was baptized in a church building and married in a church building. Our church recently purchased our first church building. Some of my best friends are . . . have . . . church buildings.
I don”t hate church buildings, but I don”t love them, either.
They can be both great tools and””in my opinion””great obstacles in the work of reaching lost people. Church buildings create identity, opportunity, stability, and credibility. They reflect a commitment to the community, but they can also isolate Christians from the world (and each other) and sap huge amounts of time, energy, and money that could otherwise be used for outreach and staffing needs.
I recently read an online conversation between the preachers of two massive churches: David Yonggi Cho and Rick Warren. Cho is the preacher of the largest Protestant church in the world (Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, South Korea””750,000 members). Cho started the church as a plant over 30 years ago and it has grown through the use of cell groups, not buildings. Warren is the preacher of Saddleback Valley Community Church in Lake Forest, California, which has more than 80,000 members.
Reflecting on Saddleback”s explosive growth, Warren said:
We wanted to prove to the world that you don”t have to have a building to grow a church. We were running over 10,000 in attendance before we built our first building. So we know how to grow and minister without buildings . . . Even if we had all the buildings we needed, one question is whether or not the next generation wants to worship in huge buildings!
This is it exactly! . . . It is silly to build larger and larger church buildings. It is silly to spend more money on (branch church) buildings! You”ll never have enough. I really believe this . . . because it is a real waste of money to build a larger building.
Warren”s response was to wonder, “Just think of that money and how you could be using it for missions!”1
We do spend a lot of money on buildings. At Southside Christian Church, where I minister, we are paying millions of dollars for our first building (we”ve been without a building for 11 years), which makes me feel a little queasy. In reality a church building is just a very attractive, functional, but expensive box.
I know of a lot of dynamic churches that think “outside the box” and effectively use their building to reach their world for Christ, but there are other churches that appear to be capable of “thinking only of the box” and how best to stay hidden, protected, and isolated within their comfortable stained-glassed world, while lost people are left to find other boxes someplace else.
Thinking this way about the church””thinking “outside the box”””is not a new concept.
The first Christians did well without church buildings. They gathered in homes, tombs, catacombs, and anyplace else they could gather safely. The first evidence of a house being converted to a place of worship was discovered in Iraq in 1920 by British soldiers; the church dates back to AD 241-256. There is no evidence of Christians building church buildings until the construction of basilicas during the reign of the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century.
The first Christians were thinking “outside the box” long before it was popular to do so. They gathered not in a box, but as a body. A body is the image God prefers for his church (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18; Romans 12:4, 5). A box seems to be our preference.
I hope I”m wrong, and here are a few reasons why:
Boxes don”t move””It is unnatural for a box to move on its own; it is unnatural for a body not to move on its own. Throughout the Bible our faithfulness is compared to a walk (Psalm 1:1; Colossians 3:7; 1 John 1:7). Knowing our tendency to entrench, one of Christ”s last commands to us was to “go” (Matthew 28:19). The church is commanded to search out and get next to lost people.
The best way to catch fish is on a boat because a boat allows you to go wherever the fish are biting. Another way to catch fish is to build a dock and hope the fish come to you. Too many of our church buildings are unmovable docks””and the fish stopped biting years ago.
Boxes don”t grow””If you”ve ever found yourself trying to fit the perfect gift into an imperfect box, then you know from experience that boxes don”t grow. Knowing this truth, Rick Warren used 79 different facilities for functions in the church”s first 15 years””schools, bank buildings, recreation centers, theaters, restaurants, large homes, even a 2,300-seat tent. Warren says, “The shoe must never tell the foot how big it can grow.” Healthy bodies grow and””if we”re not careful””our church boxes can hinder growth.
Boxes don”t care””You can”t have a relationship with a building. Buildings don”t walk, talk, giggle, cry, or care, but a healthy body shares both joy and pain (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Our buildings, unless we”re careful, can hinder our ministry to hurting people by distancing us from them. Jesus touched people. He noticed them, listened to them, and mingled with them. Jesus cared. If we want to be like him then we must get our bodies out of our “boxes” and connect with hurting people at their point””and place””of need.
Boxes don”t last””We”re fond of saying “It”s all gonna” burn,” as we plan for and design our new church building. This phrase helps us keep our building in proper perspective. We are going to spend a lot of money to build an excellent tool, but we must not forget that what we physically build is only temporary. What we spiritually build will last forever. Our church building is going to be a 24/7 facility. We are going to use it while we can to help people find Jesus while they can.
One of the members of the church family at Southside stopped me before a recent service. He was excited and eager to tell me his good news. Bob wanted me to know that he was starting a scuba diving outreach group. Each month they are going to meet at one of Florida”s many dive sites, dive together, build relationships, and eventually talk about Jesus.
Way to go, Bob! That”s thinking outside the box.
1Excerpt from an article on Pastors.com, “Breakfast With David Yonggi Cho And Rick Warren.”
Arron Chambers has been preaching minister at the Southside Christian Church of Orlando, FloridaÂ (www.ourpurposeispeople.com), since 1998. He is president and founder of Tri Life Inc., consultant for Creative Training Solutions, a competitive triathlete, and an inspirational speaker who speaks to thousands of people each year. He and his wife, Rhonda, have four children. Arron is the author of two books, Running on Empty: Life Lessons to Refuel Your Faith (Life Journey, 2005) and Scriptures for Life (Adams Media, Spring 2006). His Web site is www.arronchambers.com.