Editor's Note: Many church leaders feel the tension of deciding how much money to spend on facilities. Should we aim high and build lasting cathedrals or be minimalists for the sake of our fellow Christians who lack such resources? We opened this series with David Platt explaining that he's “not convinced that large buildings are the best or only way to use God’s resources.” J. D. Greear responds in this post. You can also read David Gobel's “Reforming Church Architecture” Matthew Lee Anderson's “Buildings Matter Because Bodies Matter.”
First, let me establish that I am not an anti-building guy. I believe that God provides for his people in any context the resources necessary to reach that context. In most North American contexts buildings have produced useful tools in reaching a community. Thus, I don’t think that we are robbing people in other nations by building the facilities required to reach our community just because the cost of one of our bricks equals 10 of their meals. To think like that, I believe, would come dangerously close to assuming that God is short on money. The God who multiplied the loaves and the fishes can provide, through our sacrificial giving, enough to reach people here while still giving away richly to missions around the world.
That said, in relation to facilities I believe we should be minimalists, for a couple of reasons: To begin, ornate buildings are simply not necessary to reach people in our day. In fact, ornate buildings often end up being more of a distraction for younger unbelievers than an aid, as our generation is characterized by “the Bono Factor,” which makes them question why so much money was spent on houses of worship when so many around the world are suffering. (I am not saying, by the way, that unbelievers are fair or consistent in how they hold that, just that it is a standard they apply to churches and charity organizations. Grand facilities become a stumbling block to them.) Now, our culture is fickle, of course, and that sentiment may change with the next bull market. I have to admit, though, that it does seem odd that we would spend so much to build a monument to a God who does not dwell in temples made with hands. While God certainly can be glorified through architecture (Ex. 31:1-6), the divine beauty of the church is not revealed in its buildings but in the Christ-likeness of its people.
When a church outgrows its meeting space, leaders face a choice: multiply services; build a bigger building; or turn people away. Some would, of course, say that I've left out the best option: planting a church. Church planting is the most important work a church can be about, but church planting usually does not deal with the over-population problems of a church. It is just not feasible to plant churches fast enough to keep up with a modest 15 percent growth rate. For example, if your 700-person church is growing at 15 percent a year, and you convince 100 of them to go plant a church (an extraordinary feat in and of itself), you will fill up the space left by that 100 in less than a year. Furthermore, church planting doesn't appeal to everyone in the congregation, and not all are in situations where they can or should pursue it. The pool of people ready and able to help plant will grow smaller each year. Thus, our appeals for people to plant will likely face diminishing returns, and we will not be able to keep up with the growth God is bringing to our church.
Thus, even with a very aggressive (though realistic) church planting strategy, you will have to choose between building a bigger building (expensive) and turning people away (unacceptable). For that reason, multiplying services and locations deals with overpopulation more effectively. We have found people both willing and able to shift to a new service or a new campus.
Rather than building one gargantuan building that we expect people from all over the city to drive to, we have chosen to acquire smaller venues in more localized communities. To name only two: (1) smaller venues are easier to find and cheaper to build or rent; (2) evangelism, community, and missional living are easier to accomplish if you are local. One of our mantras is: “Stay where you are; serve where you live; let's be the church in your community.”
In the past year and a half, we have sent out more than 50 of our members to plant two independent churches and started two new local campuses.
Our largest venue accommodates 1,000. At some point we may add a larger venue, but it is not in our immediate future. To be honest, I'm a little scared of large buildings. Have you ever gotten spooked walking into a large, out-of-date building that now serves simply as a monument to what God did in a previous generation? Thus, we at the Summit Church want to stay light and mobile, flexible and ready to do whatever is necessary to reach our community today, freeing up as much of our resources as possible to be able to give away richly to church planting.