Why our buildings just don’t matter.

This past weekend I had the chance to visit a parish a lot like the one I currently serve.  The property featured a beautiful and inspiring church with a cozy chapel; an enormous rectory, and several buildings that made up the parish house.  You can imagine the complex must have been truly grand in its day.   Yet inside the church pews are no longer full; and outside the neighborhood is facing the challenges of economic hardship:  poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Many of the day-to-day conversations seem to have a recurring theme:  the building.  How to raise funds to care for the building instead of spending down the endowment?  How to get more volunteers to care for the building? How to best utilize the space and bring more of the community into the building? So much of the faith community’s time, energy, and financial resources are poured into their beautiful buildings.

This Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Jesus and the rich man.  The faithful man who has kept all the commandments, but asks Jesus what else he must do to have eternal life. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” Mark 10:21-22

Jesus loved the man by telling him to sell all his possessions, and give the money to the poor (not the Church mind you).  The man was shocked to hear these words, and went away grieving.

In many ways the Church has become the rich man, and our buildings have become the possessions that we just can’t let go of.  We are obsessed with maintaining and preserving our beautiful buildings that suck the heart and spirit out of us like a Dyson vacuum.

But let’s face reality.  At the end of the day our buildings just don’t matter.  The people outside our beautiful buildings are what matters. Because it’s all about relationships, not real estate.

God loves all of humanity equally, but through his Son, he taught us about his preferential option for the poor.  Jesus is calling us towards radical generosity.  Living into this mission requires that we recognize the poverty that our neighbors and parishioners struggle with, the hunger that children in our community face, the invisible homeless living amongst us.

What if the Church did what the rich man couldn’t?  What if we sold our buildings, so they would stop holding us back? If our buildings didn’t burden us, we really could experience what it means to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel, to seek and serve Christ in all persons as a community of faith.

Episcopalians in Maine have the chance to begin thinking differently about radical generosity with Resolution 9 “Focus on People Living in Poverty” at our Diocesan Convention.   The resolution asks us to resolve that all committees, commissions, institutions and congregations include in their agenda time to discuss “How will what we are doing here affect or involve people living in poverty?” for the 2013 calendar year.

Some folks suggest this question has nothing to do with many aspects of parish life, such as the altar guild, choir, or facilities committee.   But the point is, that everything we do in the Church should affect our mission to be radically generous.   If it’s not, why are we doing it?

As communities of faith we need to recognize what really matters, and it’s relationships.  Relationships with the folks outside our doors and within, who are struggling, who are broken, who need to experience the transformative love of Jesus Christ.

Yours faithfully,

Rev. Heather Blais

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11 Responses to Why our buildings just don’t matter.

  1. Tammy says:

    I so agree with you. The parish where I serve is another example of paying bills on a building that is used maybe 10% of the week. It is a hardship at best. But I also know that what you are saying is threatening to many remaining Episcopalians who love their buildings, even if they only come on Sunday mornings. This will not be a welcomed thought…which is unfortunate. Preach on sister!

  2. Thanks for raising one of the live issues for our church. I appreciate your thoughts, and yet I also wish this were not posed as an either-or question. The purpose of our buildings is to provide a place to share the gospel, celebrate the reign of God, and nurture the poor. We do not exist to serve our buildings, but surely there is a place for our buildings in serving the mission God gave us?

  3. Julius says:

    Church buildings are not just for worship. Various spaces are used for meetings — not business meetings, but “gatherings” like Sunday school, EFM, college and young adult groups, Cursillo reunion groups, Happening reunion groups, planning-the-summer-mission-trip group…. And let’s count in that the small one-on-one meetings for counseling of all types, or just a friendly talk with someone in a “safe space.” The list goes on and on. Without our “own space” in which to gather, we are at the mercy of others, often commercial interests who may or may not let us meet there at a given time. There’s no need for grandeur, but there is a need for space.

  4. Blais says:

    We do need space, but often not the grand buildings that have been passed down from generation to generation. In the Diocese of Maine, many of our faith communities could gather in a house church the size of a rectory. We do need space, but we do not need to be so overburdened by the cost and care of our buildings that it keeps us from fully living into the Christ’s mission. What if we sold all but a piece of our buildings so that we can gather in a suitable space? What if we tore down our buildings and built a suitable space? What if we sold some of our buildings and merged with our neighbors so that we might be stronger together in both the care of our buildings and in living into Christ’s mission?

  5. Relationships of mutual service are important but so is worship and a good church building is properly symbolic and provides an occasion for engagement and relationship with God. They “don’t matter” in themselves, that’s true, but as means of symbolic engagement they do play an essential (though not irreplaceable) role.

    I’m not in favor of overly showy churches, just ones that do what a church building should do – provide an occasion for worship and a location for formation and mission. Church buildings can, and I think often do, function in analogous ways to the bread and wine in the Eucharist. Pretty much any space can be meaningfully used in the symbolic way that I suggest but there does need to be such a space and some of us will need a space that has a more traditional structure to it in order for that to happen. Others will not. But in either case, the church building (or other designated space) most certainly does matter! It’s just not the only, or most important, thing. And I agree with you Heather that we should be focused on relationships above parish home improvement. But the most important relationship is not with each other I’d argue; it’s with God. From my perspective the problem that you are identifying here is that we make an idol of our churches and that keeps our hearts closed off in many ways including keeping us from the work of mission.

    It’s not about having buildings or not. It’s about rightly using and appreciating church buildings or other spaces for what they are, which means knowing what they aren’t too. They are not our purpose, but when they’re rightly understood – and sometimes given up – they do serve that purpose. And that’s not nothing.

    You raise an important point that needs to be taken more seriously than it usually is. So, thank you Heather!

  6. Jon says:

    So in short, buildings do matter, but they matter because of the relationships and work they make possible and aren’t ends in themselves.

  7. Paul Martin says:

    Every time I see an essay like this, I remember my time in Mississippi. There was a Methodist church on the old main street, and it was probably the largest building complex in town, outside of the University. It was a resource for the entire community. That was where the boy scouts and cub scouts met, that was where the community gathered to sing the Messiah every Christmas. I don’t even know how many events happened there. And then Katrina hit the Gulf coast. The building became a refugee center overnight. Across the street, there was a semi trailer being loaded up with supplies to be sent on weekly trips down to the coast. The building became the focal point of the entire community’s response to that tragic event. If anyone had suggested to me that the Methodist congregation give up on their physical plant, I would have slugged him.

    Buildings can be an albatross around our necks, or they can be enablers of mission. That humble Methodist church building on Main Street was the best example of the latter I have ever seen. On the other hand, I have also seen historic churches in upstate New York which were abandoned to the enhancement of the church’s mission. All mission is local. All buildings are unique. The only universal is the primacy of mission.

  8. Pingback: Getting ready for Convention…Talking about Poverty in Maine «

  9. ndavidge@episcopalfoundation.org says:

    Hi,

    I’m the editor of the website ECF Vital Practices. I’m writing to ask if I can repost this blog on Friday, October 19 as our guest blog.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Thanks,

    Nancy

    Nancy Davidge Editor, ECF Vital Practices Episcopal Church Foundation 815 Second Avenue, 7th Floor New York, NY 10017

    617.901.4200 ndavidge@episcopalfoundation.org

    http://www.ecfvp.org/ http://www.episcopalfoundation.org http://www.facebook.com/pages/ECF-Vital-Practices/152603051444422 Empowering Congregations to do God’s Work

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