Has the Church Lost its Mission? Part I – How church buildings cause mission drift

I have sat in hundreds of church meetings with church leaders over many years talking about their church properties and development.  Churches start thinking about their investment in property for all sorts of reasons.  “Our congregation is outgrowing the auditorium and we need to extend or relocate.” 

Or it might be property maintenance issues that need to be addressed which often lead to renovations beyond the envisioned scope.  A new church plant needs to find a building in which they can meet and call home.  A church property sits in a prime location and developers are circling to buy the church out or co-develop the property with the church.

Or the building has outlived its purpose and has become a burden for the church – this is often the case with older buildings and dying congregations.

In every one of these situations, I always ask the same question up front.  “What is the church’s mission?”  In other words, what is it that this church is wanting to do and be in the local community in which it finds itself?  Where do you believe God is leading you as a church? 

The answers are invariably different.  That’s because each church and each building is different.  But I’ve also noticed a common theme emerging.  The mission response from a church is often framed and restrained by the existing resources – property and finance. 

So the church leaders’ mission aspirations start by asking questions about the existing building.  The manse is no longer used for the minister’s residence so what can we use it for?  Or the main auditorium is dated and no longer serves our needs or we want to grow as a church and build a bigger sanctuary.  

These are all good responses worth exploring. But should the church building be the first thing we look at when re-evaluating the church’s mission? 

The first question should always be, “What is the mission that God has called our church to at this time and in this place?” Once a church knows this, it can then ask the right questions about the building. 

Of course, asking questions about the potential of existing property can be part of the process of discerning mission but property should never drive the mission. The mission question should always come first and drive the investment decision in the church property.

The difference is subtle but fatal if miscalculated.  The priority must be to put the mission question in front of the investment question.  If we ask what can we do with our building before we ask what does God want us to do for our community, then the investment decision will always drive the mission outcome. If we put the mission question first, then the mission will drive the investment decision. 

And there is a world of difference between these two outcomes – one leads to serving Mammon, the other to advancing God’s kingdom on earth.

The mission question should always come first and drive the investment decision in the church property.

Mission questions around buildings are never simple because we have mixed emotions, hear lots of voices and worry about the time and money at stake of our church people.  But as challenging as these questions are, they should only be part of the ongoing discernment of a church’s leadership. 

The investment question tends to come first because there is an issue with the property – its too small, too big, too old, too much for us to deal with!  This question gets asked when there is a change of leadership. Or there’s generational change where the church congregation is either getting too big or too small for the church building.

Whenever we ask the investment question before we ask the church mission question we make an implied assumption that the church is the mission.  We do this by putting the church first in our aspirational and mission statements. 

Church growth is kingdom growth.  Church growth is baptismal growth.  Church growth will change our community and society by winning souls to Christ and making the world a better place.  Church growth will usher in Christ’s return. 

We don’t say the church is the mission but we make the church the mission by putting the focus on growing the church.  And for many of our churches the best way to grow church is to have a building or develop bigger and better buildings. 

We turn church mission into a a sacred cash cow when we ask the wrong mission question and turn church growth and success measured by buildings and finance into an end in themselves.

The reality is that the church is not the mission.  The great commission is the mission.  God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” is the mission. The church is a KPI, a metric, a sign that the mission is on its way. 

Of course the church is a lot more than this.  But my point is that church comes about from getting on with the mission of God.  Not by putting itself first but by putting God’s mission first.  And God’s mission is in the world, not in the church

Christ didn’t die for the church but for the world (John 3:16).  The Church was born from Christ’s death on the cross not the other way around! The Church is part of Christ’s mission in the world. And Christ’s mission in the world – the coming of God’s kingdom here on earth – exceeds the “walls” of the universal Church however we define that.

The reality is that the church is not the mission. The great commission is the mission.  God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” is the mission. The church is a KPI, a metric, a sign that the mission is on its way. 

Next blog – Has The Church Lost Its Mission? Part II How our theology can expand our mission horizons – 2 July 2021

Thank you for reading. If you liked what I had to say – or even if you didn’t and have a different view – I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment and subscribe below before you leave. If you’re a fellow blogger, I’ll make sure I check out your blog and provide feedback.

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4 replies

  1. This article again reminds us of our priorities regarding the visible or tangible aspects of delivering the gospel. The building and facilities do provide a focal point for communal liturgy and the preaching of the gospel and for fellowship and mutual encouragement. But as the article correctly explains, when the former takes precedence or priority over the latter, it can become a distraction to the core mission of the church.
    The church building does provide a level of familiarity and security for people, a venue for the uncovered to attend, a place for those who need financial or social support to come to, but as the article points out, this can also restrict or limit community outreach and interaction.
    Regarding investment in the church – the article again highlights how this can become a snare or distraction when returns on investment become a priority or a congregation is encumbered by excessive debt due to unforeseen budgetary blow-outs.
    Church membership is all about multiplying praise to God for his free gift to unworthy sinners, about seeking God’s kingdom first and then all things will be added to us. God is faithful and gracious even when we err and thank goodness we have such a God who is rich in mercy and grace – two things this sad world lacks – but which the Church can collectively impart to our communities. This is the treasure we have in earthen vessels: the gospel and our kind works that are a light in a very dark world.
    This article is a timely reminder about what Church is all about.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Joel. Great article. A good reminder of what is important, moving the lens back into focus of those blurred lines. Had a smile thinking of Calvinists when reading “Christ didn’t die for the church but for the world (John 3:16)”. But regardless of what Christians may debate when it comes to theology, in this article I think there is Biblical truth and good common sense about identity and purpose as the Church!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article here Joel, the first question is the catalyst for every other question or decision that needs to be made. In this, the church must recognise its role, purpose and true identity. “What is the mission that God has called our church to at this time and in this place?”
    Nothing else should be considered until this is somehow processed and understood. Get your leaders together, pray, review and self assess, why are we here and what is God showing us to do?
    Great article

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks Joel – some great thoughts around the church’s priorities.

    Liked by 1 person

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