Is Jesus’ mission being weighed down by our reliance on church buildings?
For 200 years, Jesus’ disciples never used any dedicated church buildings. The best archaeologists can find is a two-roomed house that was remodeled for church use in the 240s AD. Only when emperor Constantine declared himself a Christian in 313 AD did money get poured into constructions made for Christians to meet in. But the church had long been bursting with people – by 250AD there were probably more than a million believers, and by 300AD more than 6 million (10 percent of the empire)¹.
So why didn’t the early church construct permanent meeting places?
Church buildings are expensive.
The first believers probably couldn’t afford to build them. They had limited resources, and they prioritized their generous giving: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he has need.” (Acts2:44, 45) We know Paul spent years collecting for the famine-struck believers in Jerusalem, not for a new church building in Antioch. Given Christians today spend 0.1% of their incomes on cross-cultural missions², but 18% of our church budgets on buildings³, we might ask whether our priorities have shifted!
Church buildings can’t keep up with a movement.
The early church was growing fast. At the first gospel sermon on the day of Pentecost, 3000 new believers signed up, and the Lord continued adding to their number every day (Acts 2:47; 16:5). Trying to construct buildings to keep up with this growth would be near impossible. Arguably, a church building often becomes like a hard exoskeleton that hinders the growth and the missional dynamics of a church.
Church buildings are too easy a target.
At any stage, if the Romans started another round of persecution, it would be dedicated Christian buildings that were confiscated first. (In fact, when emperor Diocletian attacked the church in 303, the first thing he did was to tear down the brand new cathedral in Nicomedia!) In the many parts of the world today where churches face persecution, the same issue arises. As we partner with these believers in church planting, we should remember that a physical church building may not be a feasible option.
Church buildings are now made of flesh and blood.
Crucially, the early church knew that they were God’s building. By his Spirit, God was constructing a house using people not bricks: ‘You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house’ (1 Peter 2:5). Suddenly, wherever a few people gathered in the name of Jesus that place was more holy than the Jerusalem temple had ever been. And so what popped up all over the Roman empire was not Jesus shrines, or even meeting halls, but house churches.
If the gospel can spread throughout a world empire without church buildings, then maybe our missional strategies don’t need to be tied quite so tightly to bricks and mortar either. As we scratch our heads in church council meetings over another electricity bill, or shift nervously in our pew seat when the fellowship hall upgrade appeal is made, we could ponder another way forward: build the church by assembling the living stones of his people in places where God’s never dwelt before.
So what are some practical ideas to help shed our attachment to bricks?
1) Challenge every small group in your church with the goal of multiplying and planting another group within one year.
2) Find the newest believer in your church and then begin a new home group in their home, inviting their immediate family and friends.
3) Find the most lost, spiritually bankrupt community of people in your city or area, and pray and act towards starting a small group there within one year.