If You Build It, Will They Come?

By Tim Harlow

On a recent trip to Malawi, my wife and I had a brief layover in London and were able to travel into the city for a spot of tea. We found a shop in the back of the sanctuary of a 900-year-old Anglican church.

The place was incredibly beautiful and ornate, with lovely stained glass. However, it became painfully obvious the church wasn’t selling tea as a way to connect with the community, but because it was desperate for money. There was even a sign saying how much it cost to keep the building open.

As I sipped my Earl Grey, I was overcome with sadness, and then indignation. There are so many people in London who need Jesus. What gospel work could be funded with the money being spent on this ornate building?

The church had free Wi-Fi (thankfully), so I was able to check my e-mail.

I found our local newspaper in Illinois had just published an article about a new campus our church is building in a city 20 minutes south of us. I remembered news I’d received just the day before about another church that was going to allow us to have their building for a different campus. These great people put much sacrifice into their church building, but things just weren’t working, so we will give it our best shot.

There has been a church on the site of St. Mary Aldermary, Church of England, in London for more than 900 years.
There has been a church on the site of St. Mary Aldermary, Church of England, in London for more than 900 years.

It occurred to me our church has several million dollars invested in facilities, and I’ll be raising money for more. Yes, I believe the cost is worth it as we reach our mission field, but who am I to judge those who built the London place of worship?

We’ve been in our buildings only 13 years. What will people be saying about them in 900 years? How will a “cost per person reached” analysis of our Illinois buildings contrast with the number for the London church?

Don’t get me wrong; I’d love to have the Church of England revitalized for the gospel. The time is short. If it were up to me, I’d sell the London church building and give the money to someone who could make sure more people were in the kingdom sooner. But will someone be asking for donations to keep our Illinois buildings open someday?

My friend Hugh Halter will be preaching while I’m in Africa. He’s one of those missional fanatics who believes churches should meet in bars. I think the discussion and the tension about the mode of doing ministry is healthy.

Times Change

There is no right way. Even if there were, times change. When I came to this church 25 years ago, there was no such thing as multisite. The biggest innovations were coming from churches moving from hymnbooks to overhead projectors.

Bus ministry was popular when I was growing up. I was part of a puppet ministry. If you were high-tech, you had two levels of puppets going at the same time. Different things work at different times. Our job is to make sure we do the best we can with what we’ve got.

Paul said, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22).

If a building makes sense, build one. If it doesn’t, don’t. If you aren’t using your building, sell it or give it to someone who can do something for Jesus.

I know some would say it’s wrong to put money into buildings when so much of the world lives in poverty and/or needs Jesus. That may be true in some places, but my job is to make disciples—everywhere. My job is to send missionaries—everywhere. When I moved to this church, we were giving a much higher percentage to world missions because we were doing a poor job of reaching the mission field around us. Now we do both. The percentage we give to world missions is less, but it’s a lot more money. Most missionaries tell me they think more about actual money than percentages.

I don’t know if the money spent on St. Mary Aldermary Church of England has been worth it for the cause of Christ over the past 900 years, but I repent of my judgment.

“To their own master, servants stand or fall” (Romans 14:4).

I still think buildings help us in our ministry area. If puppet ministry works in yours, go for it. Just please figure out what works and do it. I doubt we have 900 more years to get it right.

Tim Harlow serves as senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.

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1 Comment

  1. January 3, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Amen.

    The Bible doesn’t have a long list of things a church should look like or do in their meetings.

    As long as we’re faithful to the relatively few things Scripture does prescribe, “Just please figure out what works and do it” is a good formula, as long as it’s done prayerfully.

    In our church (in Davao City, Philippines), the congregation sits in a variety of kinds of chairs/sofas in our dining room & living room. I sit in a chair next to my desk while I teach or preach, working the PowerPoint on the computer monitor.

    I’m barefoot (as is customary in homes here) in casual clothes (since there are many people here who can’t afford “church clothes”).

    We do a lot of other unconventional things, but God is blessing anyway.

    We reach people who fit those things.

    Other churches here reach people who fit more traditional settings.

    This is in accordance with your quote from Paul the apostle: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”

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