Friday, September 22, 2006

Church Sanctuaries: Objects of Waste

Yes, yes, they give glory to God and all that. But there's something really economically appalling about an ornate and architecturally expensive building that is used only two hours a week. Better to put up a simpler structure and spend the rest of the money on a homeless shelter. I don't think that God is glorified by waste, but he is glorified by love for the poor and downtrodden.

On this subject, Henry Neufield writes:

But picture the standard church sanctuary, steeple, pews, pulpit, altar area, and so forth. The building, the room, and the furniture all serve for a couple of hours per week. Many of you will point out that you have other meetings in that sanctuary–committee meetings, youth meetings, classes, and so forth. But notice that the room isn’t really designed for those things, and you’re actually working around the architecture and interior design in order to use that space for that purpose. It’s true that there are many newer buildings, especially amongst small, non-denominational churches that are much more flexible, and much better designed for multiple uses. Even so, I would ask you to look at the schedule of use for your office building, the conference room at your place of work, and similar structures, and consider the cost involved and the amount of use.

I don’t have statistics in hand, but in my experience, churches spending as little as 5% of their money on outreach regard themselves as “mission oriented.” Add to that evangelism and budgeting for charitable projects, and you’ll get the total spending for outreach. (Don’t forget the salaries of staff members who are assigned to such tasks.) Look at your own church budget. How much of your money goes to maintaining facilities and paying people to maintain the membership. How much of the spending goes to people in the club?

UPDATE: Henry Neufield adds further thoughts on this topic.


Clix said...

Hm. Is it possible for a church to be mission oriented by encouraging and training its members so that they will be its outreach to the community?

John said...

It also takes money. For example, let us say that a church wished to start a prison ministry. That requires training, materials, and transportation. $$$$

Or if a church wanted to create a food pantry, it would require certain building changes and, of course, food. $$$$

Or let us say that a church wished to create a ministry to provide AIDS medicine to people who couldn't afford it. $$$$

Clix said...


AIN'T THAT THE RUB! *grin* *sigh*

I'm also not entirely convinced that architectural aesthetics are a vital part of discipleship. ;)

And just think, if our churches focused more on architectural functionality and less on being pretty, we might have fewer undiscipled couples who want a "church wedding."

*scowly* Sorry. That's kind of a pet peeve of mine.

Richard H said...

I understand the sentiment here, and has one who has a financial black hole for a sanctuary, feel it myself from time to time.

But I've also read enough history to be afraid of seeing the church reduce itself to a social service center - even a social service center full of really, really, nice people. I see that as the route followed in 19th century England and the Social Gospel here in the US. It was easy for the churches to goad the State to ante up and join in meeting the needs of the poor. Then the state crowded out the church - or took up the slack when volunteers burned out, or finances ran low. Then the church became just a shabby version of what the State could do so much better with the power of taxation & compulsion behind it. Pretty soon the churches are simpy irrelevent: the church people have forgotten God, or delegated God to mythology. They became as secularized the society they thought they were chaplaining.

Perhaps we need to go the other direction: use our "useless" sanctuaries MORE, not less.

Dan Trabue said...

Our sanctuary (actually a big room that used to be a machine shop) is used daily for the homeless dropin center, monthly for a community coffee house, weekly for meetings, dinners, prayer meetings, etc.

I'm all for using the "sanctuary" more. But perhaps more in the true sense of the word "sanctuary," rather than the big, pretty room they usually are.

The church I grew up in a few years ago released an end of year Ministry Accomplishments paper. Their ministry accomplishments that year included padding the pews and paving the parking lot.

Does Ministry to Posteriors (I'm being polite) count?

Mark said...

I dunno, I kinda like beautiful sanctuaries. There's a sense of 'otherworldliness' in a sanctuary that doesn't look like a multipurpose room.

On the other hand, I agree that there's an awful lot of wasted space in many of our sanctuaries.

Maybe we should sell our buildings and go back to the home church concept.

Jonathan Marlowe said...

John, I am with you most of the way on this. If I were part of a new church, and it needed to build a building, I would certainly want it to be multi-purpose. It is possible to build a building that is aesthetically pleasing for worship, and still functional during the week for all sorts of other activities, including meals, missions, recreation, and other large gatherings. I think one of the keys to that would be individual chairs rather than pews bolted down to the floor.

On the other hand, there is something about a beautiful sanctuary that really moves me deeply. It's hard to put it into words, but I keep thinking of the story of the woman who lavished all her costly ointment on Jesus, and one of the disciples objected that the money should have instead been given to the poor. We remember how that story ended.

For churches that already have a beautiful sanctuary, I say enjoy the grandeur that your architecture can reflect. Let it be a reminder of God's glory, perhaps God's transcendance. Give thanks for those who built that beautiful sanctuary. Don't feel guilty about worshiping in it, even if it is only for an hour a week. That may be the most important hour of your week, perhaps the hour that transforms all the other hours.

John said...

You have a point. Last time that we hosted IHN, all of the kids continually wanted to go into the sanctuary because it was so beautiful. They concluded that God lived there because he would want to live in a beautiful place.

Richard Johnson said...

What's your opinion to the importance of symbols and rituals?

John said...

They're very important. We just don't need to gild the lily with excessive onstentation.

Anonymous said...

It's true - they are objects of waste.

At a church I worked at about a year ago, I really wanted the church to start doing things for the poor, homeless, and needy around them.

They (the senior pastor and the board) refused to have any outreach until the church had some repairs (improved lighting) and saved money to move into a new building in the next 3 years.

I was shocked because I was basically being told, "Our building and our stuff is worth more to us than people."

The simplicity of Christianity shows how ridiculous this thinking is. I look around the world and see booming Christianity in locations where people have nothing. We have everything and only spend it on ourselves "in the name of God."

I feel bad for churches like this - they are selfish, hateful, and use God's name in vain (by demanding a tithe to spend on their own ends for the "glory of God").