The Salvation Army invests millions in buildings and property. Should we be renovating, maintaining and constructing more churches? Or should we worship in public spaces, such as school gymnasiums and community centres?
This is the first in a series of Point Counterpoint debates in which a variety of Salvationists will explore two sides of an issue that is critical to Army mission.
Yes, keep our buildings. But let’s open them up to the community and attract newcomers.
BY LIEUTENANT PETER LUBLINK
There was a time not long ago when I argued that we needed to sell a lot of our church buildings. I saw so many of them lying dormant and neglected. The problem was empty, unused buildings. My solution was to sell off our property assets and use the revenue for other important Army priorities.
Even after arriving in Victoria as corps officer at High Point Community Church a little over a year ago, I still had the urge to sell our corps building. After all, it was underutilized and had fallen into major disrepair. But instead of selling the building, our congregation worked side-by-side to renovate the space, making it more functional. Some professional contractors were involved, but much of the work was done by volunteers. The same people who sang on Sundays, swung hammers on Mondays.
In the same month that we began to renovate, a number of community organizations came to us looking for rental space. The partnership seemed obvious. We had space and they needed it. The city of Victoria wanted to use our church as a location to house the homeless on the coldest nights of the year. Our building became not only a source of revenue, but an asset to the community. We discovered the solution to an empty and expensive building is not to sell it, but to make better use of it.
Suddenly, our church was filled with activity, sometimes for 24 hours, as people slept in the multi-purpose room at night, and met for a youth café in the evening and daycare during the day.
When the Army bought our current building from another long-standing church in the community, we moved in quietly and tried not to make much noise. We wanted to respect the neighbours and not become a nuisance. Then one day a neighbour complained, asking why the church bells weren’t being rung anymore. Even those who didn’t attend church wanted to hear the bells. Now, we ring the bells every Sunday morning to announce that the people of God are gathering.
With a building as architecturally “church-like” as ours, it’s no surprise that people also drop by every Sunday morning to see what church is all about. They can hear the music playing, they can hear the bells, but the building itself is also unmistakably a church. Many visitors seek prayer or physical help, and some have stayed and become part of our congregation.
Last summer we hosted a community block party where 200 neighbours enjoyed live music, food and fun. Many asked for a tour of our sanctuary. They were curious about what took place inside our building. Just last week yet another of those neighbours joined us for corporate worship.
The cry to stop spending money on church properties comes from many sides. And truthfully, I used to be one of those voices. But when we start seeing our buildings as community assets lent to us by God in order to bless others, the investment in maintenance seems a small price to pay.
In the last year, our congregation has grown substantially. Of course, we can’t take credit for what God does in the hearts of his people, but much of that growth has been because of how we have used our building. Some people have walked by and been curious; others have asked for rental space; some have slept on the floor to escape the cold. Now they are part of our congregation.
As we move forward as an Army in this city, we plan to continue to use our building to the fullest capacity. In the next month, for example, we are hosting a Christian conference and a major rock concert, partnering with another community organization to help mothers struggling with addictions, and will again house those with no home on the coldest nights. I thank God that those who have gone before us did not sell our building in the midst of tough times. Much of what we do now simply could not happen had we sold the property.
Every Salvation Army-owned building around the world bears the words “dedicated to the glory of God.” In the moment of dedication, a song is often song. Here is one verse that defines how we must continue to use our buildings to the glory of God:
Here may the lost find refuge,
The striving saint find grace;
Let youth obey your calling
And children see your face;
May every word here spoken
Direct men to your throne,
And every note of music
Be for your praise alone.
Lieutenant Peter Lublink is the corps officer at High Point Community Church in Victoria. Visit www.pointful.ca
No, buildings are too expensive. The church must go where the people are.
BY MAJOR BOB ARMSTRONG
Admittedly there are days when I am tired or the weather is so miserable that I entertain the thought of having a church building. But these thoughts are short-lived. For three years, The Willows has operated as a portable community church out of a local school. Our weekly routine has consisted of picking up the 24-foot trailer that holds all of our worship gear and driving it to the school, unloading it and setting up in the gym, packing up again and loading the gear back in the trailer, and returning it to its parking spot. Believe me, I understand the disadvantages of not having a church building. However, I would also argue that not having a fixed roof over our heads has plenty of advantages. Allow me to pose a few questions.
Is a church building the best value for our dollar? One statistical review suggests that the typical church building absorbs 40-60 percent of the annual budget. Who can carry the cost of a building these days? Just think of the money you could put toward additional staff to improve the quality of programs or broaden the ministry base, including missions and outreach to the disenfranchised. Not having to pay for utilities, maintenance staff, supplies or a new roof can be liberating.
Is a church building the best way to build community within? The church is not about a building, it’s about people. Although miserable weather may dampen our excitement from time to time, setting up and packing up for church each week clearly builds community. Many hands participate, giving people a sense of ownership and pride in what we do.
Community is also built because we are forced to meet in homes for Bible studies, movie nights, youth groups and other social events. In our case, we have also been given free access to a refurbished barn where we hold events too big for our homes and too small to require the rental of another facility.
In some churches, the building becomes a symbol of financial and managerial success. However, our school experience has been a time of spiritual blessing. When moving into a new facility, congregations risk losing something valuable. People’s roles change. Some give to the building fund with strings attached and are upset when what they had hoped for doesn’t materialize. Others feel their financial contribution should entitle them to more say in the church. Bricks and mortar start to come between us.
Is a church building the best way to connect with the outside community? Because our philosophy of church is much broader than Sunday morning services, we consider Saturday night bowling, for example, as part of church. This philosophy of ministry has led us to hold community events on community territory. This gives people direct exposure to our church. Meeting in a local school is also less threatening for those who, for whatever reason, may not feel comfortable in a church building.
Our associate pastor runs soccer camps on the school grounds, which exposes our faith community to the public. The school principal has asked us to organize extracurricular activities for a specific age group that she is concerned about. And the Parents’ Advisory Council requested our help serving food at the school’s sports day. Regular contact with the school builds relationships between teachers, students and their parents.
These days, many churches are renting their buildings to outside groups to offset maintenance expenses. In the past, my strategy for renting the church building to outside groups was the same as the grocery-store owners—strategically put the milk in the back corner of the store so people are tempted to buy other items as they walk by. I hoped people using the church building would see the bulletin boards, pick up our advertisements and decide to check us out.
But what if we reversed this strategy? What if we didn’t have the concerns of paying for upkeep? What if we didn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of having to be a landlord in order to finance the church? What if we went into our community’s territory with the hope that our witness would encourage them to join our faith community? This idea almost sounds like the Early Church. They went where the people were.
A Bigger Question: When we first searched for a facility for our new church plant to meet in, we realized there were none. Every school in our city already had a church in it. Today the cost of land and building a facility is so high that it’s not even on our radar. But cost is not the only reason we do not have a church building. You can’t beat being smack dab in the middle of a residential area where families walk to church, pushing their children in strollers. I think there is a bigger question that we need to ask: If the doors of our church suddenly closed, would the community know we were gone?
Major Bob Armstrong is the corps officer at The Willows—A Community Church of The Salvation Army in Langley, B.C.