This is a difficult article to write, but I think the topic is one that many smaller churches need to discuss. A few years ago I was a speaker and work shop leader at a denominational event. While there I met an organic church planter for that denomination. Rather than taking a more traditional approach to church planting he was committed to planting small churches that would meet in people's homes. Part of his time was spent in trying to convince people that they would be better off selling their church properties and using that money to do ministry in their communities. I ate lunch with him each day of the conference listening to his ideas and vision.
One of his comments has stuck in my mind. He said that anything a church of 30 people does can be done in a home as well as in a building that is used one day a week. Let that thought sink in for a few minutes.
If you are a member of a church of 30 people or less each Sunday, ask yourself how much money are you spending on building upkeep, insurance, utilities, and other costs of owning property. What might happen is you spent that same amount on ministry that touched people's lives? If we are to be good stewards of God's money should it be spent on buildings or people? I'm not saying there is anything wrong with buildings, but if those buildings prevent us from doing ministry with people there is something seriously wrong with our sense of stewardship.
I know we have an attraction to our church buildings. They are the places where we were married and where our children were baptized. Perhaps a family member's funeral was held in that building or our grandparents gave a gift to install a stained glass window that has their name on it. I understand all that, but at the end of the day it is a building. It is not the church; we are the church, it is a building. As I used to remind our congregation occasionally, our building would hold a lot of hay, and if we're not doing what God has called us to do then it might as well be used for that.
The church planter I was talking to encouraged smaller churches to turn their buildings over to their denomination for sale. Once the property was sold the people would begin meeting in homes, and the money would be divided between the denomination and the congregation. The denomination would use that money for new church planting, and the congregation would use their money to do ministry in their communities. If their congregation grew beyond 20-30 people a new group would be formed and meet in another home.
My new friend admitted that very few people were excited about his vision for new church planting. It requires a major paradigm shift in how we define what constitutes a church. Just as many denominations struggle trying to identify their bivocational ministers I would imagine they would struggle with recognizing these house churches as real churches.
Despite the resistance many people would have to such an idea, I think this is a conversation many smaller churches and denominational leaders need to have. Many smaller churches have neglected building maintenance for years and will soon face some major expenses making needed repairs. These churches face growing challenges finding pastoral leadership, and even with the increased numbers of bivocational ministers some find it very difficult to find a pastor. The church is also facing an uncertain future with many questioning the tax exempt status churches now enjoy. Governments at every level are constantly looking for new tax revenues. Forcing churches to pay property taxes would add multiplied millions of dollars of new tax money to their coffers, so I think it is dangerous to assume that we will always enjoy the exemptions we now have.
More important than any of these reasons is that it would force us to think differently about what it means to be a church. It would require us to think about what God's purpose for the church really is. It would cause us to be a community rather than an organization. Caring for one another would become more important than Robert's Rules of Order, and we could learn what it means to minister to one another and to those outside the church as a community of believers. Rather than waiting on the paid professional or someone else in a position of authority to do something we would each use the gifts God has given us to minister as we see the need.
Yea, I think this is a conversation many of us in smaller churches need to have.