When “Church” Becomes Business

Or, Why We Won't Have A Building

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I met with someone recently who is interested in launching a new congregation. They listened to my stories and my heart. I felt really heard by them. It was a wonderful time. It is evident they are a good person who loves Jesus.

They asked the question in our conversation that always comes up when discussing my perspective on leading congregations.

Why would having a building be so bad? How would it hurt what it is you're doing?

I have been a pastor in multiple settings since leaving seminary. I have served a very small institutional church that transitioned to a missional approach, I have served at a small mega church, and I have served a missional neighborhood congregation. Being in each of those settings has offered me the opportunity to see behind the curtain of each. All three have their positives, all three have their negatives, the grass is not greener anywhere. Each approach uses their own version of manure and each kind of manure has its own distinct odor, you simply have decide which you prefer to smell.

The one thing that is true about both approaches where a building has been involved is that the leadership of the church is primarily focused on the development of financial resources for the building. The means by which this takes place is by bringing in enough people as giving units to fund the building and its necessary extras. At this point, the primary focus of the leadership of the local congregation ceases to be about the work and life of the congregation, but becomes more akin to a business.

Woah! Woah! Woah! That's way too cynical. WAY TOO CYNICAL. It sounds like you're saying that churches with buildings are primarily being run like businesses. I don't think that's fair.

I understand that this might make some folks upset. I get it. It's a hard truth to hear. Yet, if you were to sit in many of the meetings that I have sat in over the years what you would see and hear are discussions based on one thing: money.

Income and expense reports are shared each month. They are gone over with a fine tooth comb. Discussions ensue about how to raise the income and limit the expenses. The desire to grow the congregation is rooted in the need to get more money. Buildings age as do their systems. Things need to be fixed and replaced. Being a good steward demands that the congregation pay its bills. To pay bills you have to have money. To have money you need giving units. To get more giving units you have to figure out to have more people come through the doors and start giving you money.

I have become convinced that the moment a congregation owns a building it necessarily changes its identity from “congregation” to “business.” The pastor becomes the CEO, the Session becomes the “Board.” Congregants become “guests” that need goods and services provided to them. We desire to make them comfortable more so than to challenge them and press them into deeper discipleship. Why? Because we don't want them to go down to the church down the street.

The church world is very competitive. You don't want to lose out to the cooler, more hip place down the street.

Am I cynical? Perhaps. I'm fine with that charge. I'm actually very comfortable with it.

Here's what I know, in the six years of serving a missional neighborhood based congregation, my Elders and I have barely discussed finances. They are almost a non-issue and they are certainly not something that we spend time worrying about. Our Session meetings are times of them ministering to me and us praying for our congregation.

I may be cynical, but I am convinced I'm right about how owning a building changes the nature of a local “church.”

Also, let me be clear: I don't believe that congregations with buildings are doing something inherently bad, wrong, or unbiblical. I am grateful for the way they serve their communities and all the ways that they honor Jesus.*

One last caveat: My next post will be a critique of the missional neighborhood congregation approach. So, don't worked up that I think my current congregation is THE way and all other approaches to living as the church is wrong.