December 5, 2006
Missional Bricks and Mortar
Can a church be truly missional and own a building?
A few years ago churches that were serious about their work were "purpose-driven." Today those same churches might call themselves "missional." The upcoming winter issue of Leadership will ask what exactly it means to be missional. David Fitch is a regular contributor to Out of Ur, pastor of Life on the Vine, a missional community in Long Grove, Illinois, and the author of The Great Giveaway. In this post Fitch asks if owning a building is contrary to missional church values.
Is buying a building always contra being missional? Upon first instinct, the answer would be yes. Certainly missional gatherings would hesitate to invest in a traditional church building. But are there times when inhabiting a building might itself be incarnational according to missional logic?
One positive thing about the end of modernity is that truth cannot be held captive by the rational, the strictly representational, or the logocentric. It must be embodied. So we who live in these times naturally resist any attempts to strip truth of its embodiment. Missional living, we say, must be incarnational.
But if truth is to be embodied, if we are not going to be limited to only words, then we must embody ourselves as a physical presence in the community. This might include inhabiting a building.
I am sure many, perhaps the majority, of missional communities will gravitate towards meeting in homes. But if embodiment in a community requires this community to see us, watch our way of life, see they way we welcome and engage the hurting, recognize God in our architecture, our meals, our artwork and worship, then there might be times when we should take residence in a place that is visible to the community. I know this goes against all missional thinking, so I am just asking, at what point does a building become incarnational?
I understand the resistance of missional churches to own buildings. They are cumbersome, require resourses, and often push the church into an attractional mentality as opposed to a missional/incarnational one where the church is dispersed into the world. This is all good. But I argue that there are times and places (not all times and all places) where buildings, sanctuaries, and physical architecture might be the very expression of such an incarnational community. In other words, part of incarnation might be the very brick and mortar of the sacred space we gather in. A building could exemplify and point all who would see it toward the reality of God.
There might be therefore, a stage in the development of some missional communities when a building makes sense. Some of our best examples of missional communities have made investments in buildings (like Solomon's Porch and Jacob's Well). In order to be missional we might need buildings, particularly buildings that resist the impression that Christ is another thing for distribution at a Walmart. Not a big box church, but a building where artists render the theology of our life together upon its space. We might need a building to feed the poor, to give sanctuary to the victimized. We might need a physical space that wipes the blank stare off modern people's eyes to see a reoriented world under the Lordship of Christ.
To all those who meet in houses, I am sure all of this can be done in a home gathering. It is possible that art, meal, architecture, and furniture can embody the incarnational Christ in a living room. But sometimes it might be ok to devote a building for this purpose. Not a grandiose big box where the sign of the cross is not visible. Not a monstrous and expensive edifice that dwarfs and disfigures the surrounding community with corporate pretense. But a church inhabiting the community which visibly embodies the life of Christ in our midst. I think sometimes (not all the times, and it requires discernment) such a building is incarnational.
Consider all of the dying vestiges of a past church life in the cities where His Body once lived but somehow died or moved on. Many city neighborhoods desperately need a visible witness of the new life made possible in Christ. As long as the missional incarnational DNA remains, I believe these old buildings might be the very places for a re-incarnation of the gospel.
Our congregation started in an abandoned church building after the previous church closed. We filled it with art, camped out on its property, and now seek to engage the community from its launching pad. It provides the base for the Presense in the bland suburbs. In the midst of the urban landscape, and especially the suburbs, there may be times when such old buildings provide the basis for a uniqiue physical presense? What do you think?