The church is not a building; it’s a people. How many times have you heard that? The number must be over a thousand, and rightly so because it’s so true. When the church becomes a building, the church becomes ugly - a collection of hosted programs, the overseer of thermostats, the debater of carpet colors. That’s the fear, anyway, which lies beneath the mantra: the church is not a building. While some churches give too much attention to owning and operating a facility, it is inversely possible to pay too little attention to the idea of church structures. This is true of established churches, as well as church plants. In a quest to keep the people of God pure - free from the entanglements of institutional church life - it is possible to swing the pendulum far to the right where the issue is dismissed out of hand. Is there a healthy middle ground? We might land here: a building is not everything, but it is something. [quote]A building is not everything, but it is something.[/quote]
A church building is not always the answer to healthy church life. At the same time, a church building is not nothing. It is something, and it is something every church plant should consider carefully. Who is in a better position to consider the question of church structures than the church planter - often landing in a new place with few friends and a field ripe for ministry. There are two big questions on the mind of every church planter. First: how can I reach these dear people in my community? Second: where can I gather them together? Answers to that second question are often most elusive to the church planting pastor. In what remains of this short post, we will consider common sense wisdom others have gleaned along the way.
There are four common options for establishing a location at which a church plant will meet: Rent, Buy, Borrow, Share. At each step, we will consider together some words of wisdom.
Rent - As it is with church buildings, money isn’t everything, but it is something. And it’s something most church plants don’t have much of. Therefore, renting is often preferable to buying. Schools, theaters, dance studios, synagogues - these are four familiar rental options for church plants. Among them, it may be the case that renting school space is the most common. Most schools afford the unique blend of a wide open space for corporate worship - like a cafetorium or gymnasium, as well as smaller spaces for children and adults classes, such as a teacher’s lounge, library, or classroom. Schools are often childproof, which is an added bonus.
Beyond schools, other options are less common but still possible. Early in our story, my church considered meeting in a local, iconic movie theatre. It was a vintage theatre showing mostly independent and foreign films. To the theatre manager’s eyes, we were easy money because his theatre didn’t open on Sundays until 1:00 pm. His plan was for us to use all three screen rooms - two for children’s classes and one for worship. The theatre was directly across the street from a college, which would help us in our efforts to reach students. Parking wasn’t great, but it was an exciting and promising idea, until…
The theatre was run by a board of investors. Two weeks out, with the lease in hand, the board suffered a change of heart. We were denied. We considered meeting in a synagogue (there are five of them in my town). But it proved easier said than done. There were no studios large enough to meet our needs, and what was large enough was way too expensive. We called school district. At first, it didn’t look good. A church had never before met in a public school in our town, and that fact made people a little nervous. We submitted our building use form and for the next two weeks we heard nothing but radio silence. Later we learned our request had been denied, until a ranking school official stepped in and opened the way for us to rent space at one of the elementary schools. Providence, I say. For the last five years, we have enjoyed a sweet and blossoming relationship with the local school system. It’s been good for us. It’s been good for them.
Words to the Wise Renters:
- Don’t be in a hurry. Because God is sovereign, time is on your side. Of course, you can’t sit back on your laurels either. Pray fervently, take your time, and make a wise decision.
- Gather good data. There are probably other good churches around who care about you. Ask for the names of faithful church members who work with real estate. They can help you find or negotiate a fair price. Every church plant needs “a guy.” Our guy is in his sixties and has been a blessing of wisdom to us time and time again.
- Know and bless your landlord. Every renter has rules about what you can and cannot do, what you should and should not do. Master and follow those rules. If you want to be happy for the rest of your life…. never break the landlord’s rules. Be meticulous. Be clean. Be courteous. If your rent is late, apologize in person. If you’re in a school, know and serve the principal, the secretaries, and the teachers.
- Learn your key holders’ and custodians’ names. Then help them in their work. If they are responsible to set up chairs for you, help them put out the chairs. If you spill coffee, try to clear it up yourself first. Give them pastries and thank them for their work. Who doesn’t like pastries and gratitude? Share the gospel with them. It’s easy to overlook the people who open the doors each week.
- Keep your eye out for more permanent space. You probably can’t and don’t want to rent forever. Lord willing, your church will grow and you will need a space that is more your own. Keep a list of options. Discuss and pray about them with your fellow leaders.
This brings us to the next option: buying a meeting place. The benefits of this option should be obvious. Buying a facility brings freedom. You’ll be free to use your space as you please. Owning a facility will open you up to opportunities to do ministry every day of the week, and not just on Sundays. The energy you and your members were putting toward setting up and tearing down can be redirected to other ministries and outreach.
However, while buying is often preferable to renting, it is often more difficult to accomplish. It costs more and the options are fewer. This has been a concern of ours since the beginning. Since we planted in a land-locked location with few buildings suitable for assembling a large group, we have wondered if buying will be an option for us. So far, nothing concrete has surfaced…but we’re ready, and you should be ready too.
Words to the Wise Buyers:
- Follow the first and second words of wisdom to renters. They apply here even more so.
- Look everywhere, at all different kinds of places. Often in the quest for permanent space, our preconceptions blind us from exhausting all available options. You may not see it now, but with a little time and creativity, what was a “no-go” may become a “Go, Go!”
- Take the roll weekly. When the time comes to apply for a loan, some banks will require six months (or more) of attendance records, along with your financial statement. I’ve not faced this myself, but it’s what I’ve heard from others. Every week, we keep attendance of Adult and Youth Bible Fellowship (Sunday School), children’s classes, and corporate worship. You have a lot to do each week, so don’t make this more difficult than it needs to be. You could just tally all the names on a piece of paper, scan it with your phone, and upload to the cloud for safe keeping.
- Teach responsibly on the importance of church giving. Like many planters, your church start may be in a place where biblical disciplines are not as well known. Don’t just say, “It’s time to take the offering.” You will need to actually biblically teach about giving and stewardship.
- Invite your congregation to pray fervently about the future, while keeping in mind the blessings afforded by owning your meeting place. God has ordained the prayers of His people as a means by which He accomplishes His will. So pray.
It’s hard to imagine the possibility of borrowing a church building, and for good reason. How many people do you know who own an empty sanctuary? I know zero. But remember that corporate meeting space is not the only kind of facility a church plant will use. Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t work only on Sunday. There are six other days of ministry to be done, and those ministries may utilize a variety of spaces.
My church is strongly focused on biblical counseling. Our pastors and other trained church members routinely practice the private ministry of the Word with those in need. The biggest challenge our counseling ministry has faced is answering the question, “where can we counsel?” If we had to rent a room every time we counseled someone, our well would run dry quickly. Thankfully, there are many good, free options for such meeting space.
We have done counseling and other forms of small group discipleship in a number of places. As a church planter, one of the first moves you should make is to research and visit the options. Some of the best places for counseling and discipleship space has been: the public library, local coffee shops, private rooms hidden away in businesses, and homes. We have used all these options for free.
Words to the Wise Borrowers:
- Search right away. As soon as you reach the destination of your church plant, start asking and looking. Ask everyone you meet, “Do you know of any rooms where I could hold a small Bible study?” You may be surprised at how many options there are. Long before your church ever meets for corporate worship, your church will meet for small group discipleship, counseling, evangelistic Bible study, planning meetings, etc.
- Check the public libraries. Most libraries have a small meeting room you can reserve for counseling and discipleship during the day. Many libraries are even open well past dinner time, which means night-time meetings are possible with those who must work during the day.
- Look for secret rooms underground. In the early days of our church, we met for countless discipleship and counseling sessions in a little room underneath a hippie-dippie, small-time coffee shop. That is, until they shriveled beneath the shadow of a large coffee chain and closed their doors. It’s a condo now.
- Keep asking. Even after you find a nice little spot, continue looking. After three years of asking around and looking and asking around some more, we were granted free use of a couple small rooms in the basement of a nice downtown office complex. It’s owned by our “guy” who works in real estate and faithfully attends a like-minded church. This space now holds our internship library, staff meetings, and a majority of our counseling sessions.
- Be careful, be flexible, walk softly. Until renting and buying, borrowing offers you little protection. One wrong move and you’ll be back on the street.
As a hybrid of renting, buying, and borrowing, sharing can open up a world of possibilities. Inherent in the term sharing, it is expected that your church will share space with another church. (It wouldn’t make much sense to share space with a hair salon, unless you plan to offer a “Bible and blow-dry” service. I’m joking; don’t do this.)
I suspect in every town are churches struggling to make it. Some congregations have lost their strength through poor leadership, an aging congregation who has failed to connect with the next generation, or some other frowning providence. Sharing space with them could be a mutual blessing. In fact - just this week - a nearby church voted to allow my church to share space in their building. We are looking forward to this exciting new step in the life of our young church.
Words to the Wise Sharers:
- Get to the know the pastors around you. One of the best decisions we made in our early days was to visit every church and synagogue in our town. Our aim was to meet the pastor and express our gratitude to “become a part of your community”, as well as to communicate our desire to be friends. These efforts fell flat with some local pastors, but others blossomed into real brotherhood.
- Be teachable. Visit other churches. Talk to their pastors. Learn from them. Over time, you may find ways that an arrangement for sharing space can help you both.
- Be generous. Even a small upstart church plant has something to offer by way of encouragement and help to other local churches. Sharing space should be a two-way street. Just as you can learn from them, there are things they can learn from you. You may be surprised by the many opportunities to impact churches with values different from yours.
- Be transparent about your plans for sharing space. If you hope to share space for the long-run, be clear about that. If you have a reasonable anticipation that the shared location could become a permanent home for your church, be clear about that too.
- Communicate clearly with your members. Sharing a facility - especially transitioning from one place to another - takes time. You will need to hear and anticipate their concerns. Prepare to answer these questions ahead of time, and be patient with those who do not quickly jump on board with the idea of sharing space.
A church building is not everything, but it is something. Be careful. Be wise. Move forward.