The church is the people not the building. We should grow the vine not just build the trellis. The church building is just a rain shelter. So a minister of the gospel should not neglect the ministry of the word and prayer for the sake of caretaking a building any more than for the sake of waiting on tables.
If you have the blessing of owning your own church building (even those of us who rent or lease meeting places and office spaces), you need to be careful that you don’t end up working FOR the building, rather than the building working FOR the ministry!
That’s why we have Boards of Management and Deacons and Parish Councils: to focus on serving the church through giving attention to matters like hire agreements, carpet cleaning, light globe replacing and sound desk training.
BUT there is a danger that the leaders of a church will pay absolutely no attention at all to their church facility, and there are some big problems with this total neglect as well. A few things:
1. Honour, support and oversee those who manage the building
With anyone who is stepping up to serve you church, you need to make sure you honour and support them. No matter how little you personally understand or care about that aspect of the work of the church, you must never dump a job on someone and run. Those who manage the property affairs of the church need to be honoured, equipped and supported in their roles, given our full attention and careful responses when that it needed.
Also, like any other role in the life of the church, those managing the building need to have oversight. At the very least, the leaders of the church ought to receive a report on their activities and have the final say on new proposals. But also in the day to day, and week to week, it needs to be clear who will ensure all the issues related to the cleaning, repairing, improving and managing of the building is done well.
In a smaller church with few paid staff, at least some of this must fall to the paid pastor. Some time needs to be given to ensure that these jobs are being done to a good standard, with godliness, and with efficiency of time and money.Because much of the work is done by volunteers there may sometimes be gaps or lapses. And since the paid pastor may be one of the people in the facility most often, there a lots of things they may notice.
Day to day things that the paid minister may have to keep an eye on:
- Do you notice anything inside or out that needs cleaning or maintaining — lights, windows, gardens, signage?
- Are we managing the public spaces in a way that presents a hospitable impression to newcomers? — We can use our public spaces to drop of stuff for the Sunday school play or to give way hand-me-down clothes. This may be easy and convenient for the exisiting church members… but does it present the best first impression to guests? And does it lull the congregation into think ‘church is for us’ — creating a comfortable in-house vibe?
- Are we managing private spaces that foster efficient and flexible ministry? — if ministry spaces slowly get absorbed by one particular ministry of the church, so they don’t full ‘pack down’ after their activities… this can actually hinder the best use of this space for others. If staff office spaces are not kept tidy with clear workflow, this can hinder staff working quickly and with clear heads.
- Are we sending the right messages — what posters are going up on windows and noticeboards? How many brochures and newspapers are on that table just outside the main auditorium? How grumpy are the signs in the kitchen and bathroom?
2. Manage hire agreements with wisdom, kindness and a priority on gospel ministry
There are important issues of godliness and priority that relate to how the church building and other spaces are hired out to others. The leaders o the church need to ensure that there are good guidelines in place for how these decisions are made and how the relationships are managed.
If this happens rarely, such guidelines might be loose, informal, or even made on a case by case basis — in which case the leaders should keep an eye on the precedent being set. Sooner or later more will need to be written down.
A few issues:
- What kinds of groups and activities are we happy to host in the facility? — secular activities? Alcohol service? Groups with different theology? Other religious or ideological groups?
- Are there any groups or activities we want to provide the facility for free or cheap?
- What kind of training and code of conduct do we need of those who manage hiring, to ensure who are firm but kind — not discrediting the gospel, or frustrating fellow believers, by a rigid or scolding manner, or by a sloppiness and slow communication?
- How do we ensure that property income and hire obligations don’t take over our building use, so that we can no longer use it in the best and most flexible way for gospel ministry?
- How do we become more systematic in the way the various spaces are use so that multiple ministry and non-ministry activities can take place at the same time without disrupting or detracting from one another?
3. Build, renovate and improve the building to be best for gospel ministry
Building or renovating is, as I have seen and heard and can only imagine, a massive drain on the energy of a church leadership — and even on a whole congregation. And yet we do it, because if that time, energy and money is invested well, the whole ministry benefits for years to come. We can use buildings to provide a massive boost to gospel ministry — like a trellis that helps a vine grow and prosper.
But the tragedy is when this is all done, but bad decisions are made so that the end result is not suitable for gospel ministry, or very far from ideal.
This is why the church leadership need to be involved in this process — from a massive building project to more day to day furniture layout questions — to make sure that it will best serve the purpose of gospel ministry.
The kinds of things to care about and ask about:
- How is the sound in this space? — Since we are about the ministry of the word and loving communication with other people, we need to ask of all our meeting and mingling spaces. This doesn’t just matter for the main auditorium, but even for foyers, Sunday school spaces and even office spaces. A wonderful little feature of a cry room entrance I encountered in one church building, was that they added two layers of doors, like an airlock, or an entrance into a public toilet. This meant that parents of young kids didn’t need to worry about the sound of crying children distracting the rest of the church, every time the doors were opened — very smart.
- Are we helping people come in and and find where to go? — we want new people to come into our church building, and find it very easy to both know where to go, and get the help they need. The mundane issue of signage should sit in our heads as having the same kind of importance as coordinating a doorknocking campaign or training up welcomers for the 10am church meting.
- Does this space help people minister to each other in as many ways as possible? — I know of a church building designed beautifully by architects, that has wonderful foyer. But because the architects aren’t active church members, I suppose they imagined the purpose of the building was primarily for Sunday services. So the foyer is just a passage to walk into the auditorium, and then stand and drink a cup of tea and eat a Scotch Finger afterwards, right? The church leadership needed to work with the architects to ensure that this foyer was much more functional for mingling, hospitality, small discipleship meetings all week long. We need to ask of every space: how can we and might we use it? How can it best help these different types of ministry activity?
- Are we sending the right sociological and cultural signals by our design choices? Architecture and interior design aren’t neutral. They send all sorts of cultural and sociological signals to us. You can draw all sorts of conclusions about the quality of coffee in a place by the font of its sign and its use of intentional use of milk crates. The layout of a room can subtly push you in a particular direction. There are little things that shrink spaces or make them feel roomy, that make a meeting feel intimate or formal. On a broader cultural note, matters of design create a different impression of what is modern or pretentious, elegant or stuffy…. even what is ‘white’ or ‘Asian’. We need to learn about these things and find others who can help us think this through.
- We could go on to ask questions of warmth, lighting and other things… those who have worked hard in this area can probably add to this list way better than I can.