Church Buildings: Helpful or Harmful?

Written by Karl Dahlfred on .

There are not a few church groups in Thailand who are desperate to get a building regardless of how small their group is.  Scripturally, there is nothing wrong with having a building in and of itself but when a small group of believers gets the idea in their head that they need to have a building to be considered a “real” church, then much of their time can become focused on finding money in order to get a building.  But does a church need a building in order to be a “real” church?  According to the Bible, the church is the body of Christ, and all believers are members of that body (Eph. 5:29-30).  The church is people.  Nowhere in Scripture do we see the term “church” equated with a building.  Certainly, if a group of Christians wants to get together on either an occasional or regular basis (such as a weekly worship service), they need someplace to meet.  In Acts, we see people meeting both in the temple and in homes (Acts 5:42) but there is no Scriptural mandate or prohibition about the type of buildings that believers should meet in.   As for those groups of believers in Thailand who end up focusing on getting money for a building in order to be a “real” church, their time and money would best be spent elsewhere - specifically, focusing on growing in Christ and sharing the Gospel with others.  Scripturally, evangelism and discipleship are much higher priorities than getting a “proper” church building (which, I might add, does not even make the list of necessary elements of having a church in the New Testament).

Where  then,does this almost blind devotion to the need for a building come from?  As I figure it, there are probably at least three factors at work:

  • Thai people generally don’t entertain people in their homes, especially those who are not relatives.  Friends often go out to eat or meet someplace other than at home.  Many Thai would not feel comfortable either inviting people to their home or going to the home of someone that they don’t know well.  Thus, it would seem like a good idea to have church meetings in some location other than at home.
  • In Thai Buddhism, the temple is the focal point of religious practice and ceremony so it makes sense that converts from Buddhism to Christianity would want to have a building to be the focal point of Christian religious practice.
  • The feeling that “All the other churches have buildings, so we want one too.”  In other words, there is the established precedent that churches have buildings.  So, if you are a church, you should have a church building.

For small congregations who don’t have the money to buy their own building, the factors listed above can often push them into an unhealthy and counter productive campaign to find funds.  Such a campaign can be harmful to a fledgling congregation as the focus is taken away from Christ, and becomes centered on money, convenience, and outward respectability and recognition.    How can this harmful path be avoided?  

For the church planter (missionary or native) who is starting from scratch, it may be possible to convince the believers that pushing for a building may not be in their best interest at the current time.  Whatever the church planter sets as the precedent from the beginning will have far reaching consequences for not only that first church plant, but also for all the churches that flow out of that first one.  Setting good patterns and precedents from the beginning is very important because it is hard to change the established precedent later on.  Within the Christian community in Thailand there is the unfortunate precedent that a church must have a building.  More than one hundred years ago in China, John Nevius observed the same harmful precedent damaging the Chinese churches and creating unhealthy dependance upon foreign money.  Nevius observed that “[t]he Chinese are remarkable for their tendency to follow a fixed routine, and to be governed by precedents.  If the first convert is soon employed, those who follow will expect to be also.  If the first station is supplied with a chapel, succeeding ones will require the same, and so on indefinitely.” (John Nevius, The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, Monadnock Press, Hancock New Hampshire, 2003, p.31)   

Seeing the unhealthy consequences of trying to acquire a church building too early on, some missionaries have suggested that church buildings should be abandoned altogether.  While I can appreciate the motivation behind that sentiment, I am not yet convinced that it is either necessary or prudent to go that far.  I was recently at a regional meeting of Thai pastors and church leaders, where the topic of discussion was a book on church planting authored by a Thai pastor and theologian.  On the issue of church buildings, the consensus among the Thai church leaders in my discussion group was that a church building is desirable because of the social awkwardness that many Thai feel in going to someone else’s home.  They felt that a church in a home can be difficult to find if you are in a city away from home, and that if a person has some kind of grievance with the home owner where the church meets, then that could keep that person away from church.  Therefore, if there was not money for a building from the beginning, then it is best to meet in private homes initially until such time that the church membership can afford a building.   When I raised the issue of small churches shifting their focus away from Christ and onto finding money, the Thai leaders seemed to agree with my concern.   However, they thought that it was still quite possible for a small church to keep their focus on Christ while at the same time saving up money over a long period of time to eventually buy a building.  

At the end of the day, it would seem that a church building can be helpful and is desirable in the Thai context but that getting a building shouldn’t become our focus.  Having a church building is not wrong but the inordinate desire for a building for the wrong reasons and/or at the wrong time is wrong.  Seeking after a church building can have a harmful effect upon a church and therefore the decision about whether to seek to get a building should be carefully thought through by missionaries and local believers alike.  

I once had a missionary team leader who told me, “In order to start a church, you need either people or a building.”  That statement didn’t seem right to me but I didn’t question it at the time because I was a brand new missionary without much experience.  But with a few more years under my belt now, I don’t think that I would seek to get a church building from the very beginning of a church plant here in Thailand.  I hesitate to lay down a hard and fast rule as circumstances can vary widely.  However, given the above considerations, I would rather start meeting in homes and if the group of local believers want to find/rent/buy another meeting place, then we can take a look at Scripture together and think through the practical considerations.  Will seeking a building or some other meeting place at this time be helpful or harmful to the church?  Will it help the spiritual growth of the congregation and help evangelism or will it be a financial and emotional burden?  Will we be able to keep our efforts to get a building in proper perspective or will our minds and hearts be more occupied with the building than with Christ?

In my next post, we’ll take a look at whether missionaries and their supporters should have a part in funding the construction of church buildings on the mission field.


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