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“Come build a church with soul and spirit,
come build a church of flesh and bone.
We need no tower rising skyward;
no house of wood or glass or stone.”
Come Build a Church, Ken Medema, 1993

“The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
the church is a people,”
We Are the Church, Avery and Marsh, 1972

Recently I saw a quote from a church expert of some sort suggesting that eight of every ten Protestant churches in North America would do well to sell their buildings — or something like that. Said churches should then give away most of the proceeds, invest some in grassroots ministry, and find inexpensive space to rent.

I understand this impulse. I get it. I truly do. 

Look at so many church structures. Usually a dated, somewhat worn, unloved, and ugly, “education wing” is attached. The pride and joy of 1963 now sits nearly unused. Maybe a local nonprofit group or two now office in the musty former classrooms.

I know firsthand that church buildings are money pits. They demand so much time and energy. It’s always something. Not simply the day-to-day upkeep. If the roof wasn’t damaged by hail, a sump pump failed, the windows are drafty, or tree roots are jumbling the sidewalk.

And behind all this there is something — is it cultural? theological? — a bias that buildings are worldly, vain, irrelevant, status symbols. A bias confirmed by the rousing songs of yesteryear mentioned above.

I don’t really disagree with any of this. Nonetheless…

I consider some of the small, rural churches of upstate New York that formed me and my understanding of ministry. These congregations are now over 225 years old, in buildings nearly that old. No one today would intentionally start a church in these locales. Still, they aren’t, as critics contend, dead or introverted, unimportant or merely surviving. True, they won’t be mentioned in the next great book on leadership. Perhaps they aren’t even vibrant, but they are tenacious. And they are genuine, living examples of a church. Ministry in the name of Jesus takes place there. The Word is proclaimed. The sacraments are celebrated. 

It’s hard to imagine these churches surviving this long if they did not have buildings. And if they were to put their building up for sale, I don’t think there would be any clamor for the property. Perhaps someone could store farm equipment there? Give a try as apartments, a restaurant, a gallery? Seems unlikely. Moreover, their buildings are keystones, identity-givers in their communities. 

Is a congregation that is 100 or 200 years old merely a relic, an antiquarian oddity, a testament more to stubbornness than selflessness? Or is it a token of perseverance, steadfastness, and faithfulness? 

I understand why churches rent space in strip malls, gymnasiums, coffee houses, and theaters, or gather in homes. It may not only be about possible cost savings or being nimble. Perhaps it is also about cultural familiarity, being non-threatening, meeting people where they are. 

Still, is a church somehow different from a discount shoe store that has a 10-12 year life expectancy or the all-you-can-eat buffet that will endure for five years? Are we okay with churches having a 25 year shelf-life? Should we be? 

Comparing European churches to North American churches isn’t necessarily apples-to-apples. Nonetheless, I recall reading that “rather than seeing their old sanctuaries as relics of a past age, Dutch congregations seem to embrace them as means for missional outreach.” No one is claiming that the Protestant churches in the Netherlands are now thriving or that their old buildings are the primary reason for any momentum. But it is an interesting observation. 

In Puritan New England, the church building was usually a prominent, substantial structure, often located on the village green, sometimes directly opposite the courthouse or city hall. The symbolism was obvious. 

In contrast, in Quaker Pennsylvania, church buildings (meeting houses) were typically humble, unobtrusive, peripheral buildings. For many of us, myself included, our initial, chastened, post-Christian inclination today is to lean toward the Quaker sensibilities. 

In his book, Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia, E. Digby Baltzell contends that the Puritan culture — and this very much included the size and placement of the church building — imbued a deep sense of civic responsibility and community service, along with a transparent, honorable personal life. Religion was a major contributor to public life. Meanwhile the inconspicuous Quaker structures were part of a culture where religion was private and quiet, leaving a vacuum in public life that invited the unscrupulous. Personal lives were out of sight and unaccountable, and frequently then, opulent and indulgent. 

Most of my observations have been more cultural-sociological than overtly theological. I don’t doubt, however, that parallel theological arguments could be made. And don’t take me as an absolutist, defending church buildings at all costs and in every situation. I’m simply suggesting that they might not be the bane we often imagine.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    My experience completely. And now church buildings are becoming marvelously counter-cultural, and in urban settings, they are the only public spaces where everyone is welcome, and without security checks.

  • RZ says:

    Hmmm. Something to think about. I was recently impressed or perhaps depressed to view the number of European cathedrals now empty, presumably irrelevant, owned and maintained by governments or museums because their maintenance costs have become unsustainable. On a smaller scale, we see something similar in North America as neighborhoods change and/or relevance and loyalties wane. There is a cost/ benefit tipping point perhaps. Excessive debt can be crippling.
    But perhaps pride in facilities is related to pride in “congregational exceptionalism.” My church is better than your church. Our pastor or our orthodoxy or our worship style or our youth program is better than yours. So join here. Bigger is better.
    Loyalty is good. Nostalgia is good. Beauty is good. Tradition is good. But clarity of purpose and current relevance is better.
    I really cringe at the overused bride-of- Christ metaphor. It just feels possessive and sexist. But the bride who survives over decades develops an indispensable beauty that is more than skin-deep.

    • Rodney Haveman says:

      I think Nostalgia is quite toxic. I don’t intend to be argumentative or mean-spirited, but it’s just a thought, which I don’t mean to say that buildings are irrelevant or unimportant. I’m probably close to Steve’s articulation of the notion of buildings. My friend Al Janssen told me, “The church is the people. This is certain, but it is also the people’s things.” I found this out the hard way when I tried to get rid of some old dish sets. Nostalgia …
      Yours in Christ,

  • Kathy Vandergrift says:

    Two thoughts with appreciation: A case could be made that the Quaker influence on public culture has been substantial, different but not less important than the Puritan influence, if quality of influence matters. Second, church-owned spaces across North America are the biggest category of land that could be used for social purposes, and there are great examples of heritage and worship space being incorporated into multi-social-purpose uses of these sites. In Canada there is a foundation dedicated to helping churches make these kind of transitions.

  • Tom Brandt says:

    There is something to be said for sacred spaces, spaces set aside for worship with the symbols of faith visible and prominent. Certainly anyone can worship anywhere, but having a dedicated space imbued with the history of generations long past worshiping there gives it a special meaning.

  • John Hubers says:

    Several observations: 1) Middle Eastern Christians would endorse your observation about buildinngs as witness. An Egyptian Christian friend once told me: ” this is our way of saying we exist as a viable part of this society.”
    2) not sure if this is a spiritual, sociological or psychological observation – probably all three – but building sacred spaces sometimes at great cost and effort is a universal impulse – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Shintos, animists – and, yes, Christans – all do it. That should tell us something about the value of sacred space to our identity.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Your thoughts ring so true. The buildings can be viewed as a means to an end: worship, learning, places to grieve and rejoice, share food and fellowship; all actions done to benefit and sustain a congregation. But then use the building as a public square: offer art shows, local polling place, VBS, local school and health department food stations, pantries for the community. Don’t treasure the building as “yours”, but find ways to use it to benefit your neighborhoods and cities. Open hands, which includes our buildings.

  • jared ayers says:

    Steve- love discovering that someone else in the world has read Baltzell’s PB / QP! So full of fascinating insights.

    Thanks for these musings on the nature of church buildings, as well- I also believe them gifts that we discard thoughtlessly at our own peril…

  • Kent Fry says:

    I am reminded of Martin Buber’s insight that there is I-Thou truth and I-It truth. I-Thou truth, Buber wrote, is more important than I-It truth. But I-It truth is important. That is one of the reasons that people get attached to places, things, sacred spaces. It is not the thing but that which it points to. Therefore there is an overlap between I-It truth and I-Thou truth. In our rush to get rid of place and thing to embrace the personal, we sometimes overlook the power of place, architecture, buildings, which create a sense of belonging. During the coronavirus quarantine, our people missed the sacred place which brought them into contact with the sacred. It may be that the church building points beyond utility or everything as a transaction, which tends to be the cultural norm, to worship which can be a royal or glorious experience beyond space and time.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    If you meet in homes, fine, St. Paul did in Philippi at Lydia’s, but a home can never be public space. There’s a great opportunity for mission when you worship in public space. Of course too many Protestant churches are way too private.

  • I remember asking members of an AA group why a number of groups did not pool their money and buy a building instead of meeting in church basements. The members told me that if they bought a building they would shift their focus from maintaining sobriety to keeping up a building. I wonder if the church, in many cases, hasn’t shifted focus from the church mission, to maintaining buildings.

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