By Doug Lucas
Suppose the Restoration Movement churches (Christian churches and churches of Christ) want to restore the New Testament practice of constructing or buying church buildings. What would it look like? Easy answer. To my knowledge, throughout all the New Testament, there’s not a single example of constructing or buying a building.
The book of Acts records exponential church growth without buildings. And, according to Matthew 28:19, 20, our core mandate is to make disciples who will make disciples—not build buildings. Making disciples always needs to be at the center of everything we do, whether it be going, baptizing, or teaching everyone to obey every command.
What did the first church focus on? Acts 2:42 makes it clear: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
And as a normal part of their everyday life, they were constantly telling everyone they met about their new pattern of following Jesus. As a result, the church multiplied. To do Bible things in Bible ways is to focus on being a disciple worth multiplying—then just naturally, to multiply.
The Ethno-Cultural Impact
But throughout the world, culture does seem to play an important role in our focus on church buildings. For example, when the first Team Expansion workers arrived in Uruguay back in 1982 (and my wife and I happened to be on that team), home meetings were looked down upon by the government, if not the entire culture. Why? A communist/socialist insurgency had recently tried to overthrow the government. Their primary method for radicalizing new converts? House meetings.
As a result, it was practically a cultural necessity to meet publicly in some kind of legitimately registered meeting place at a well-documented day and time. To do otherwise would have been to create additional barriers for church growth—and ignore good missiology.
In preparation for writing this article, I asked about examples of church buildings in the Two Thirds World (or the “Global South,” as it’s now also being called) via Team Expansion’s global intranet and on open social networking sites.
The responses were all over the board. Pictures revealed each society’s attempt to construct something culturally authentic. Missionaries gave example after example of both successes and failures in those efforts. One Team Expansion worker shared that in his land in Southeast Asia (name and country withheld for security’s sake) the people really didn’t take a religious group seriously unless it had a legitimate meeting place. Otherwise, they appear “cult-like.”
Another Team Expansion worker wrote that “in Israel, ‘Messianic’ Jews do not worship in buildings that would be considered a ‘church building.’ Instead, they are more likely to worship in industrial park areas, in large rooms converted for the purpose of holding a service. Israeli Arab Christians tend to worship in places that look like a church.” Again, notice the cultural and ethnic influence.
Still others shared additional stories, all of which proved that societal expectations, along with ethno-cultural norms, can pressure disciples into certain approaches, primarily because those approaches seem to be the only avenues for reducing barriers for growth. And it turns out that growth has a lot to do with one’s views of church buildings.
Buildings Versus Houses
Donald McGavran, regarded by many as the father to the church growth movement, wrote a landmark book called Understanding Church Growth in 1970. In it, he described the early church (first two centuries) as experiencing amazing church growth, all of which happened by meeting in homes, alongside public markets, and in random locations beside bridges.
He observed that the house church movement of the first two centuries unleashed powerful growth for its day and age by unshackling the church from the cost of building buildings, freeing the movement from Jewish connections, preventing introversion (each new house church exposed the movement to a new section of society), and overcoming the obstacle of limited leadership (so many leaders were needed to facilitate multiple house meetings). He added that, “in modern times, these four factors still retain their importance.”
Still, though house churches seem like the universal answer, McGavran later observed (in the same book) that these movements can sputter if they don’t “supplant the property barrier,” especially in cities and regions where houses are tiny, such as in the crowded inner cities of the Global South.
But even as McGavran admitted this, it was with regret. He bemoaned the cost of buildings for already tight church planting budgets.
He theorized that, perhaps the best way to avoid church buildings is to keep multiplying so rapidly that nobody ever has time to raise the idea of a single church building.
“A Church which has found a way to communicate the Gospel, where the number of baptized believers is constantly increasing and the smell of victory is in the air, eliminates the building bottleneck in cities much better than a Church which is not growing,” he wrote in the 1980 revised edition of his book.
At Team Expansion, we’ve benefited greatly from the wisdom of a disciple-making movement trainer named Curtis Sergeant. I asked him for his thoughts on this topic. His words were unsettling, considering the number of church buildings in our world today—and those seemingly tied to them.
We allow buildings to “soak up” an inappropriate portion of our resources. Americans are far from the only ones doing this. The “temple” focus is common and doesn’t just come from Western missionaries. Assumptions even from other religions lend themselves to the same results. People are essentially self-serving in all cultures. Often, congregations spend far more on their own comfort and convenience and entertainment than on outreach. We tend to justify that as a way to attract people, betraying our primary model of growth, which is “come and see” rather than “go and tell.” We often seem to forget that the task of leadership is far more one of equipping all of us for ministry rather than “feeding” or entertaining us. The nature of our buildings reflects this.
Sergeant shared a story about a well-known megachurch.
They sent some senior staff members to talk to me about multiplying ministry. At the conclusion of our time together they decided that, although they firmly believed the patterns I was sharing would result in more and better disciples being made, they couldn’t pursue it. The reason was that they had just built a new campus to the tune of many tens of millions of dollars. They thought if they changed their approach, people might decide the building wasn’t as important and they would be unable to pay for it. I appreciated their honesty but grieved at their attitude. They were not alone. Not close to it. At least they were honest enough to recognize and admit their values.
Doug Lucas serves as president of Team Expansion, an organization seeking to multiply disciples and churches among the unreached. Team Expansion is based in Louisville, Kentucky, and has workers in 40 countries. Learn more at www.TeamExpansion.org.
The Bottom Line
So based on these things, what conclusions can we draw?
1. The Bible says little about church buildings, so we have liberty to proceed as we wish, within the norms of the culture/society in which we labor.
2. House churches avoid many entrapments for rapidly growing movements. If the pace, culture, and society allow, we should use them whenever possible.
3. If other norms dictate, we should find culturally appropriate and reasonably inexpensive ways to stage meetings for celebration and praise.
In the web version of this article, I’ve included pictures from several locations in the Two Thirds World, or Global South, crediting those who were kind enough to provide them. We invite you to contribute your images, as well, along with any comments. May God speed along our disciple-making movements for his glory.