Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple

2 Weeks of Pagan Christianity

There was good discussion in the comment section of the previous post about institutionalism. It is worth further consideration and will likely continue to come up as we discuss the topics of this book.

Many of you have already read Bill Kinnon’s post The People Formerly Known As The Congregation (TPFKATC) which Brother Maynard recently nominated as 2007 Post of The Year. I did a response post to Bill’s post called The Underlying Issues. (Both of these are linked on my *Recommended* page, along with lots of other good stuff.)

It is interesting that almost all of the issues addressed in these posts are also addressed in Pagan Christianity. Bill’s post was regarded as polemic. However, it connected deeply with the changes and questions many people are experiencing in their beliefs about church.

In regard to these posts, I said at that time:

“Whether or not we ourselves are written off as reactionary, the church will eventually have to address the validity of these issues.”

Much of the commentary about the book so far has been about the tone of the authors. While the critiques may be valid, they are a distraction. At the end of the day, whether or not you like Frank, George, or their writing, the issues remain. Whether or not you agree with their conclusions, I believe there is value in the book’s review of the history of church practices.

Moving forward on specific issues, I would like to look at them from the perspective of our practices in relationship to our principles. Do our practices influence and shape our principles? Or do our practices reflect our principles?

The Church Building

The second chapter is about church buildings. At this point the book shifts to being an interesting overview of the history of the church building from the first century through modern times. There are descriptions of how and why various elements that are now associated with church buildings came into being, for example – steeples, stained glass, pews, and pulpits.

While there are many interesting facts and examples, the historical detail is by necessity not comprehensive. However, there are plenty of footnotes included for those interested in pursuing further study of the topics discussed.

“The early Christians understood that they themselves – corporately – were the temple of God and the house of God.”

“In 324, Constantine began ordering the construction of church buildings to promote the popularity and acceptance of Christianity. If the Christians had their own sacred buildings, their faith would be regarded as legitimate.”

“The Christians embraced the concept of the physical temple and the idea that the building is a special place where God dwells in a special way.”

“Somehow we have been taught to feel holier when we are in “the house of God” and have inherited a pathological dependency upon an edifice to carry out our worship to God. The church building has taught us badly about what church is and what it does.”

“If we equate church with sitting in a pew and taking a mostly passive role, then church buildings are appropriate for the task.”

“The social location of the church meeting expresses and influences the character of the church.”

These few quotes don’t really do justice to the extent of material covered in this chapter. But it gives you a bit of a taste.

My conclusion is that there is nothing inherently wrong with a building. I actually think buildings are helpful and sometimes necessary, but not to the extent that we have they made them monuments. I think there are great possibilities for redemptive use of the buildings that already exist.

A few things that buildings have influenced or contributed to:

  • Misunderstanding ekklesia.
  • Sacred/secular dualism.
  • Ritualization.
  • Passivity.
  • Congregants as spectators.
  • Lack of participation.
  • Consumerist mentality.
  • Attractional mode.
  • Isolation.
  • Stagnation.
  • Lack of movement and mission.
  • Overhead costs.

The problem isn’t necessarily the building, but rather our imagination and understanding of who we are and what we are called to be apart from the building. Over the years, I believe that our buildings have contributed to the calcification and lack of movement that the church has fallen into by subtly reshaping our identity as a people.

In the Forgotten Ways, Alan Hirsch said:

“One of the major blockages to unleashing Apostolic Genius is our adherence to an obsolete understanding of the church. A people whose imagination of what it means to be God’s people has been taken hostage to a less than biblical imagination of church.”


16 thoughts on “Here’s the Church, Here’s the Steeple

  1. Grace,

    In most of the places (China, Tribal India, Middle East, Southeast Asia) I get to work, buildings are not an option. I have found great freedom in this.

    You said: “The problem isn’t necessarily the building, but rather our imagination and understanding of who we are and what we are called to be apart from the building.” I agree. The building has become so deeply associated with who we are as the church that we can’t see beyond its walls. This is why I have stopped using the term church planting.

    Buildings are such a deep part of our understanding of church. When I send folks overseas to areas where Christ is not known, my fear is that their idea of church planting will include a building. When I send folks, I send them, instead, to plant communities of Jesus followers…

  2. Eric, I think you are on a good path with what you are doing.

    Grace, this post is one I agree with almost completely. (My family laughs with me about the fact I never will admit to agreeing with anyone completely.) Buildings are not inherently bad but they do tend, in conjunction with the other issues rasied in the book, to create the problems you list.

    Without in any way wishing to diminish the importance of the full list there are two which I think need further elaboration.

    First, the issue of attractional mode. The reverse side of this is that a growing number of people (with each succeeding generation the percentage increases) are not only not receptive to the attractional mode but find it repulsive. Buildings are an intimate part of attractionalism. If we, as Jesus followers, are to engage our culture and individual persons in a conversation about Jesus it is increasingly unlikely to happen in a church building, even for worship. If one reviews the 20+ years of statistics on Barna’s website it is clear that fewer and fewer people ever darken the door of a church building. As Reggie McNeal stated it, the church building is the clubhouse for those who are members of that club. Most people do not view themselves as either being a member of our club or interested in joining the club and coming to the clubhouse.

    This leads to my second elaborative point. If this is true, and is becoming more true, it raises the question of the wisdom of spending very large sums of money on church buildings. I acknowledge that there are possibilities for the creative use of existing buildings in ways that could provide venues for living out the provision of social justice, which I think is extremely important. Nevetheless, I continue to see many institutional churches who abandon older buildings in areas where they could actually use them to do some good in this regard. Then they move to a “nicer” part of town and spend multiple tens of millions of dollars on replicating building. There actually almost always is a temporary uptick in attendance when a church does this. However, I think the evidence is pretty clear that the overall, long term trend is away from buildings being useful for the ekklesia. This will be particularly true if the ekklesia looks more de-institutionalized, de-programmed, de-staffed, and decentralized in the years to come. All of these are at least current trends. Time will tell whether they are merely fads of the moment or a true re-formation of the ekklesia.

    If we wish to see the future of church builings in the USA it is likely all we need to do is look at those buildings in Europe. They are lovely works of architecture that few people frequent as a church, or they have been razed, or they have been converted to some other use such as a restaurant or other business.

  3. Grace… by coincidence, I am reading along with you and just finished this chapter. I hope I stay with it, but I am struggling to get over what I see as poorly designed arguments and cumbersome writing to get at the heart of this — which includes some really good insights.

    I think you hit the nail on the head when you say the problem is “our imagination and understanding of who we are and what we are called to be apart from the building” — and that there is nothing wrong with a building, per se.

    But from personal experience, the building does have an impact in some way. My community of faith used to meet at a YMCA gym, and while it took a “leap of faith” to go the first time, the set up of the space allowed for varierty, interaction and informalness that seemed to help us get over the mindset that church was a sunday morning event. A year ago, we started renting space in a nearby church — and while you can’t help but be awed by the vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows it does seem to be becoming more like a speactator sport. And a little less fun.

  4. Grace,
    This post and the previous one surface one of those issues that the emerging conversation may radically alter—the use of a designated “church” building. Scot McKnight made a comment almost in passing that inrigues me. He was commenting on visiting the gorgeous cathedrals in Italy and other places I think. He mentioned liking them and “the theology that prompted them being built” (or something to that affect). If a biblical theology energized the use of buildings, even cathedrals, I am left reconsidering my penchant to write buildings as so “modern” or “traditional.” With you in this journey. :)

  5. I heard a story (third-hand I think) about a woman who decided to get out of her church building and go serve the poor in her neighborhood. She was so effective that a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses told her, “Go back to your church [building].” They understood that Christians are limited in the impact they make on the people around them as long as most of what we do as Christians happens inside the building. If only most Christians could see that!

  6. “In 324, Constantine began ordering the construction of church buildings to promote the popularity and acceptance of Christianity. If the Christians had their own sacred buildings, their faith would be regarded as legitimate.”

    The actress Sally Fields said it a different way. “I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me!”

  7. My conclusion is that there is nothing inherently wrong with a building. I actually think buildings are helpful and sometimes necessary….

    Grace, would you mind giving some examples of situations in which you feel a building is either helpful or necessary? I’m especially curious to hear your thoughts on when a building would be “necessary”.

    Thanks! :)

  8. I used to think church buildings were a total waste. However, I just returned from hearing Scot McKnight speak on the topic of *conversion.* One of the main ideas of the talk was the fact that ‘People respond to the story of the Bible.’ And one illustration he used was a gentleman who felt the church building played a part in his conversion process because of the way this one particular building “told the story of the Bible.”

    I hope I’m quoting him correctly, but at any rate, this was a new way of looking at the subject for me. Not sure if this is what Grace meant, but… it’s a thought.

  9. Dan wrote;

    I used to think church buildings were a total waste. However, I just returned from hearing Scot McKnight speak on the topic of *conversion.* One of the main ideas of the talk was the fact that ‘People respond to the story of the Bible.’ And one illustration he used was a gentleman who felt the church building played a part in his conversion process because of the way this one particular building “told the story of the Bible.”

    In some sense I understand what you are saying about what Scot McK. said. I viewed several High Crosses in Ireland in early 2000–they represent flannel board lessons carved in stone…and very esthetically done at that.

    But, something strikes me odd at having a building “tell the story”…isn’t it so much more desirable to have the PEOPLE “tell the story”?


  10. I have a question.

    On page 45, under Delving Deeper, Viola and Barna make a distinction between “psychological experience” and “spiritual experience”. (The point of the distinction deals with the esthetics of buildings.)

    Is that a valid distinction?


  11. Well, Iconfess I am no artist. But there are those that could very well paint a picture, design & build a cathedral or write a themed chorus such as Handel did…

    Now you will not find any New Testament precedent for such. And yet it is the emerging dynamic that seeks to reincorporate the arts into worship…

    Cathedrals are beautiful. Inspiring even. Only a true deconstructionist would dismiss or pooh-pooh their obvious expression of God’s glory. Just like the French revolution did…

    Hey, stay in drab single story ranch style houses. Say it is the next best thing to God’s intent. A brownstone. Apartment. Coffee shop. Call it the meeting place of the elect. But it does not negate the intent & purpose real stonemasons worked at constructing cathedrals of exquisite architectural beauty…

    Now we could mirror Judas’ retort about the money spent for such presumed extravagance. Especially if we feel we are much better qualified at holding the purse strings…

    All things, like money itself, morally neutral. No church building is evil incarnate. Never was. It is the love of such things that leads to the problems Barna & Viola allude to.

    Yes, we can give inordinate attention to a church building. We can be tempted with its local convenience. We can then assume it is needed vs. simply a concession. And yet it can facilitate a gathering of greater magnitude than a standard 3 bedroom, 2 bath house…

    Centuries old cathedrals I would think require quite a bit of $ for upkeep. Don’t get me wrong. Any business person would easily determine cost per benefit in any analysis. But there are some works of art that by themselves are simply priceless. No one would think of converting such a structure into condos or a business park. Not even the heathens are so inclined…

    But if you want to throw in modern mega churches (Joel Osteen’s comes to mind), I would opt to not attend. Personal preference though. Not a Holy Spirit mandated damnation for such an edifice. I do not want to be part of the greater dynamic that is happening there at Lakewood Church. Or any new mega church structure being contemplated. But then, what of the architectural giftings of those that want to build an edifice to the glory of God?

    It takes a stretch of theological generalization to consider the desire to design & construct such an edifice missing out on the true inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Sort of damnation by association. Same with any artistic endeavor done to the glory of God. Now I may not like the style of some artists. No matter what the medium. But hey, I am not the standard all others are to be measured by, thank God. Some people though come to the conclusion that such efforts simply ego driven & not at all warranted. Have constructed a comfortable theology of minimalism that relegates the motivation for such building programs as man initiated. Like the Amish. Not much for ornamentation. Most modern contrivances just catering to our baser nature. They resort to the easy of-the-devil accusation or worse, monument-to-man label that automatically relegates it to the not-of-God category. It is a form of emergent gnosticism really. Anything physical that cannot be justified according to a preset manifestation not of the Spirit. A rejection of artistic expression in the name of God really.

    Well, as I have attempted to point out in other posts, such generalizations not representative of the reality. It assumes a simple black/white, us vs. them alignment regardless of the motives & intent of the people involved in all such endeavors.

    It is too easy to simply cast all such motives & desire into the bin of non-biblical excesses. And it assumes such a conclusion can be accurately determined by association. At least from my limited understanding of scripture, only the Holy Spirit, “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” Anyone claiming to have this level of discernment for another’s motivation out of their league IMHO…

  12. For me, the two important points are the fact that in the transition from Modernity to Postmodernity people who are not followers of Jesus do not see buildings in the same way as people who are already followers of Jesus. My experience is that most followers of Jesus who have an attachment for buildings also do not really understand the Postmodern’s viewpoint about buildings. As we move further away from Modernity I think this will become more obvious since all of us who may have Modern influences will pass from this world. In other words, this will resolve itself naturally over time. But in this transition time if those who follow Jesus insist on buildings we may be an obstacle to those who have yet to become followers.

    Second, while the buildings may indeed be beautiful and they do at times inspire awe, the questions becomes is this a wise use of money that could otherwise actually be used on behalf of people who have physical needs. In other words, are buildings so important that we would neglect the needs of people in order to have buildings. Some will respond the ekklesia can do both but I would reply then why do we not do so?

  13. I don’t believe that buildings in and of themselves are inherently evil. The problem is our priorities.

    When most of the budget of the Western church is spent on the physical plant and its staffing needs, our priorities are rather obvious. And they have little to do with the Kingdom of God.

    On the McKnight comment let me respond with an apparent non sequitur. I had a friend who became a believer listening to Jesus Christ Superstar. God can use just about anything to draw us to him – even cathedrals.

  14. I have been on a long and winding road that has led me from rigid institutionalization to a new freedom in Christ and a wonderful new understanding of the plans and purposed of God. I was raised formerly as a ‘fighting fundy” and after many years finally surrendered my life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Thereafter, I spent a number of years totally apart from the institutional church immersing myself in the scriptures. Needless to say, god had much tearing down to do but also I gained a new vision of the ekklesia of God and God’s wonderful new creation..ME and You in the image and likeness of Christ.

    At various times I tried to quietly blend back in with the “organized” church…Not being vocal..But sooner or later someone woulkd ask “Well, brother George what do you beieve about this”. I would share what I had garnered from much diligent study of the scriptures apart from men’s writings…It always resulted in trouble..for me> Heretic! Unsubmissive brother. Shooting star. I’ve heard it all.

    I think now, my strong convictions about us as an organic “community” of redeemed men and women and about Christinity being a 24/7 Way of life…was too threatening.

    Well, anyway, I became acquainted with Franks writings a year ago. Rather than learning “new truths” I wound i wasn’t the only nut on the tree and I found was affirmed. Thank you Lord, I’m not crazy!

    I think this is an important book at a critical time. I would hope that people would not just react, but search the scriptures to see if the th8ings Frank says are true.

    I don’t see Frank as “against” something but “for” an alternate something. i don’t think Frank is AGAINST buildings but FOR a building made of living stones.

    I’m also enjoying your blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s