I have seen today’s Bible reading* used as a pretext for updating church buildings. I would agree that there is a case to be made and would be in the context of today’s readings. The thought is that we need to “keep up God’s house”.
But, the last time I checked, God doesn’t live in a house. (Acts 7:48) The Holy Spirit indwells God’s people, not buildings. (Colossians 1:27; Romans 8:10–11)
Unfortunately, oftentimes buildings can become idols. (“You just have to visit our church. We have the most beautiful church!”) Note the confusion between the church and its building.
If we’re going to use this passage to update or add new buildings, we have to be careful in stewarding God’s money. In most cases, going into long-term debt is not a wise way for a church to steward God’s money. I’ve seen churches buckle under the weight of debt and have to choose between disbanding and putting up the property to sell because they can’t afford the payments.
A few years ago, a large church in a nearby city made a thirty million dollar update to its facilities in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses”. The pastor bragged that the new facilities would be as attractive (meaning it would attract as many) as any church in the suburbs. No one can deny that thirty million dollars can buy a beautiful building!
“Is it a time for you yourselves to live in your paneled houses, while this house [the temple] lies in ruins?”
The LORD of Armies says this: “Think carefully about your ways. Go up into the hills, bring down lumber, and build the house; and I will be pleased with it and be glorified,” says the LORD. “You expected much, but then it amounted to little. When you brought the harvest to your house, I ruined it. Why?” This is the declaration of the LORD of Armies. “Because my house still lies in ruins, while each of you is busy with his own house.
Haggai 1:4, 7-9 (CSB)
Years ago, a preacher used this passage to motivate his church to renovate its pre-1970-era facilities. Nothing had been done to the building since its construction twenty-five years earlier. It was old. And it looked old. The church voted to update and most of the money was provided by just one person. Every time more money was needed, one of the deacon’s wives placed a call to the old rich lady.
At the end of the construction, it was a beautiful facility. And then the rich lady died. No other work was done to the building for the next twenty-five years. And it showed.
The last time I went by that church building, peeling paint from water damage was everywhere. Some of the windows were broken. The church couldn’t afford repairs, much less updates. The golden goose had died. There was no money to sustain the upkeep.
This church had been dying since the 1970s. The remodeling project merely put a nice facade on a very sick church. Instead of looking at their own hearts, the church leadership blamed the church’s decline on the declining community. It was a very sad situation to see the building be sold to a developer and the church body move away to meet in another church’s building (separate from the host church).
If we’re going to use today’s passage as a pretext for doing updates to a church building, let’s remember that building updates aren’t a one-and-done deal. We need to be good stewards now and for the future.
But we need to not only look at stewarding the finances of the church. We also need to steward the health of our churches. It doesn’t make sense to pour a lot of money into updating an old building if the church’s health can’t carry on. You’ve probably heard the expression of putting lipstick on a pig.
Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. (Matthew 16:18) However, some individual churches may fail to prevail. Perhaps they need to do so to make way for a healthier church to occupy the building, as happened with the first church I pastored.
Eight years ago, we voted to disband our church and give the building to our local Baptist Association. It was hard to close the church doors. But we heard God’s voice clearly. Eighteen months later, another (healthier) church body moved into the building and currently ministers in more ways to more people than we could have ever done as a declining church body.
Following closing our church’s doors, I served as interim in another church in our community. It, too was very sick and I told the leadership my feelings. I shared with some confidants that this church was where our church had been ten years earlier and if things didn’t change in the next ten years, this church would close its doors, too. In seven years, that church is no longer meeting in its sanctuary because of their dwindling attendance. On a good day, they may see twenty people in their worship services. We had seventeen the day we voted to disband. I can only pray that this church has the wisdom of the first church I pastored.
I know of another church whose longtime pastor recently retired. Its membership has declined. The church is under an unsustainable debt. Many people think their new pastor is the key to reviving the church. Unfortunately, this church is very sick, too.
As I said, buildings can be idols. Our pride can keep us from humbling ourselves and considering giving up our buildings to dismiss or merge with another like-minded church. Perhaps another church has money for a new building, but can’t afford to build. And perhaps the church with funds can pay off the debt of the church that can’t afford to keep its facilities. Merging may be a good fit. Or perhaps not.
It was for the church I currently pastor.
* Chapters covered in today’s reading: