f late, more and more leaders in the Christian community are raising questions concerning the practice, in that community, of putting up beautiful, expensive church buildings which are generally used only a couple of hours a week, and for the remainder of the time stand empty. Specifically, the question is: Can the Christian community still afford that kind of “luxury”? Is it a responsible use of the Lord’s money, particularly in a day when millions in the world are starving and living without the gospel, and when many of the Lord’s causes go begging for funds (think of the rising cost of Christian education and the large deficits in many of our schools)?
I hear someone say: We are financially better off today than we ever were. If our parents could afford it, surely we can too. Perhaps. On the other hand, don’t forget that there are many more causes needing support today than there were even fifty years ago. World development and the church’s expanding witness in that world account for much of this. Moreover, it’s not just a matter of financial ability. The question is: Can we afford it in another way? Is it morally responsible? In other words, is this an effective use of the Lord’s money for the coming of His kingdom? That’s the crucial question. Is the church’s witness in the world, her impact on society, proportionate to the amount of real estate she owns? The church owns literally billions of dollars worth of real estate, a lot of it in buildings. Does this enhance her witness in the world, make it more effective? Or is the opposite true? Is it a symptom of the church’s complacency, her isolation from and indifference to, the needs of the world in which she lives? Judging by the church’s impotency on a large scale today and her lack of cultural impact, these are disturbing questions. Are we spending too much money on real estate and not enough on furthering God’s kingdom by means of a dynamic, reformational witness? One writer expressed his view frankly by saying that “the construction of an expensive church building in a congregation which allows many Kingdom causes to suffer in ‘poverty’ is reminiscent of golden-calf-worship” (H. Hart, The Challenge of Our Age, p. 140). If this is putting it too strongly, it definitely is not too much to say that it is a matter of priorities. William White put it this way in the February 1970 issue of the Christian Vanguard:
We must consider our priorities with great and loving care. If churches are to be built, let them be constructed for worship and to serve the Christian community in other ways. It is a disuse of the Lord’s money to build magnificent edifices used but two-and-a-half hours per week while other efforts go a begging. . . . More of our efforts must go to involvement in the areas of daily life. Less in buildings and grounds and the repetitious spending for numbers of officials all replicating each other’s duties.
I believe Mr. White makes a valid point. We ought to move more in the direction of multi-purpose buildings—buildings in which God’s people can worship on Sunday but which can also be used to the full extent for other purposes during the week. This should be done especially in places where other kingdom causes suffer, such as a Christian school, or where the erection of a church building would put a heavy financial burden on the congregation. God’s people just cannot afford to throw around money in that way. Too much is at stake in our increasingly secular society.
I want to conclude by quoting from a recent article in Christianity Today by Wayne Grant, entitled “Rich Churches and Poor People.” This article reminded me of the proverb: In the past when the churches were of wood, the people were of gold; today when the churches are of gold, the people are of wood. Mr. Grant worked for two weeks as a pediatrician in a mission clinic in Nicaragua, Central America.
There, he writes, he “was overwhelmed by the needs of the people—pressing needs for food, shelter, soap.” Then, taking note of the church in Diriamba and comparing it with the churches back home, Grant writes:
My own church, for example, is constructing a new educational building, a facility that is definitely needed. But included in the plans is a luxurious multi-thousand-dollar chapel. A thing of beauty? Yes. Of usefulness? Questionable. Oh, it might be just the place for an occasional wedding. But will such a chapel bring the message of Christ’s love and forgiveness to the people of that corroding slum that lies within a few blocks of the church? I think not. They would feel out of place in it.
Is God pleased with the narcissistic building programs that have become so popular with many of our churches? Pale, sad faces of hungry children ran across my memory. Could wine-red carpets and crystal chandeliers fill their atrophied muscles, or tell them of God’s love? I gazed at the lengthening shadow of the Diriamba church and doubted it.
The stark contrast of huge, beautifully appointed churches in the midst of poverty and hopelessness is typical of Central and South America. I witnessed this contrast in large cities and small pueblos, and I asked myself if the same sin was not infecting my own church. In the twilight of Diriamba, some of the arguments we frequently use to justify our extravagant buildings looked painfully weak.
I planned a stained glass window for our beautiful Sanctuary,
but a pastor in a far land murmured without rebuke,
“My church has no walls.”
Rev. Jelle Tuininga was the minister of the LaGlace CRC in Alberta when he wrote this article. He went on to serve the church in Lethbridge, Alberta from 1977-1999 when he retired. He is an emeritus pastor of the Trinity URC in Lethbridge, Alberta.