Howard Snyder has written a very important book entitled THE PROBLEM WITH WINESKINS. In it he deals in depth with the problems of church structures.
He tells of the unfolding purposes of God for His Church. He speaks of our inability at times to make the proper adjustments to these purposes. The following is from the chapter entitled “Are Church Buildings Superfluous?”
“Just think of it! Imagine yourself in any important city in the first century where Christianity had penetrated.
“Now ask the question, ‘Where is the church?’ You would be directed to a group of worshiping people gathered in a house.
“There was no special building or evidence of wealth with which to associate church. There were only people.”
Walter Oetting in his book THE CHURCH IN THE CATACOMBS wrote:
“‘Christians did not begin to build church buildings until about A.D. 200. This fact suggests that buildings are not essential for numerical growth or spiritual depth.
“‘The early church possessed both growth and depth. Until recent times, the church’s greatest period of vitality and growth was during the first two centuries A.D. In other words, the church grew fastest when it did not have the help — or hindrance — of church buildings.’”
I believe the Lord is calling His people to repent of the over-emphasis we have given to buildings in past centuries. He is calling us to get rid of all barriers to the rapid planting of churches.
This is so that “the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified” (2Thess 3:1). One of the primary hindrances, in many cases, is the building we call “the church.”
BREAKING THE STAINED GLASS BARRIER
Dr. Donald McGavran, in his book, Understanding Church Growth, says: “House churches enabled the tiny church of the 1st Century to grow mightily. At one stroke they overcame four obstacles to growth. These were obstacles which the Church met as it liberated new populations:
(1) “The cost of a church building. Without any cash outlay at all, house churches provided as many places to worship as there were groups of Christians. This first common obstacle to multiplying churches never appeared.”
(2) “The obstacle of the Jewish connection. House churches pushed the Church away from the synagogue into the Gentile population.”
(3) “The obstacle of turning inward. Each new house church exposed a new set of intimate friends and relatives to close contact with ardent Christians.”
(4) “The obstacle of a limited leadership. Each house church thrust the responsibilities and prestige of leadership on able men of the new congregation. These leaders worked within the teachings of the Old Testament, oral tradition of Jesus’s life and a letter or two of Paul’s. With these flexible boundaries, they were free to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
“In modern form, these four obstacles and their solutions are still important. When we talk about causes of the growth of the Early Church, we should take into account the physical fact of the house churches.”
SATURATION CHURCH PLANTING calls for a breakthrough. We must break through the “stained glass barrier” into the simple, open fellowship of God’s people. We must see this fellowship in as many forms as the Holy Spirit will lead us, and not be afraid to call it church.
Whether we are meeting in Jesus’ name in a cathedral or in a kitchen, it is still church. It is still God’s called out, assembled people.
Yes, we will use buildings. However, we will never allow buildings to hinder our mobility, vision or zeal to multiply congregations.
THE CONSTANTINE FIASCO
James Rutz, in his book THE OPEN CHURCH, says: “What really killed us was the bricks! In the biggest blunder in her history, the Church began constructing lots of buildings.
“She displaced the catacombs (underground tombs) and forest glens in which the saints met. She ended forever the warm, precious meetings in someone’s living room.
“Modeled after the Roman forums, the new buildings held hundreds of Christians. Of course, you can’t have intimate, easy interaction with that size crowd. A new sanctuary, from the first Sunday it was opened, put limits on free expression. The new crib strangled the baby.
“Imagine you were living at that time.
“You may have felt at ease confessing a sin to a couple dozen friends over at Josephus and Johanna’s (or let us call them Joe and Jane). But could you do THAT in front of five hundred strangers?
“If God lay something strongly on your heart this week, you wouldn’t hesitate to stand up and spend ten or fifteen minutes sharing it in Joe and Jane’s living room. But here in the new hall there are probably at least a dozen men and women with a message burning in their hearts. You’d probably never have the chance to express yourself!
“Over at Joe and Jane’s, everybody got into the act in the worship time. You were able to praise the Lord from your heart, again and again as you felt led. It was the most meaningful and healing moment of your week. But here in this new building? You would have to wait your turn — which may never come!
“I could go on, but you get the idea. Without modern electronic sound equipment open meetings became difficult. Not TOO difficult, mind you, just difficult. So closed meetings took over.
“All speaking became centralized in a pulpit. Order was maintained. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
“At Joe and Jane’s, you were a participant. Here, you are a spectator — a passive listener. Somehow you do not feel important or needed anymore.”
“When we switched from living rooms to church buildings with a professional staff, we lost all momentum. The local church became weak and cold.
“Non-priests were termed ‘laymen,’ a word not even found in the Bible — and for good reason.
“As a ‘layman’ in a Fourth Century church building, you no longer approached God directly. The priest did so on your behalf.
“In this way an architectural problem turned into a doctrinal problem. The priesthood of the believer was lost.
“The Bible was taken from the hands of the layman and given to the priest. If you are not allowed to decide what it means, why bother to read it?”
THE ROAD TO RUIN
“What really went wrong? As I said, the church got so big and popular that it could erect its own buildings.
“Unfortunately, this solved a long-standing ‘problem’ that should have been left standing: Whenever a healthy house church got too big for its living room, it had to split — into two living rooms. New leadership was thus always being thrust upward through the ranks.
“But when church buildings began to sprout up everywhere, congregations no longer had to face that ‘problem’. No longer was there the awkward anguish of who got to stay with the favorite elders, and who had to split off with the less popular ones. Everybody stayed with everybody.
“The trouble was, sharing and intimacy were tricky in a crowd of 500. The big crowds put much importance on excellent speaking. Therefore, the stuttering new converts started to stay hidden ‘in their shells.’
“Being unknown by one another replaced fellowship. Communication during meetings began to be dominated by the few who had books and could read. In the end, that meant the priests.
“The laity (or non-priests) were citizens of a long-crumbling Roman Empire. They were turned into spiritual ‘eunuchs.’ They lost the strength the Empire needed so desperately at that time.
“By 476, Rome fell for the final time. Then the Church led the way into the Dark Ages.”
THE PROPER USE OF BUILDINGS
We are not suggesting that buildings have no place in the expansion of the Kingdom of God. The Lord will surely give us wisdom and direction as to how to make use of buildings of all sorts in the fulfillment of the Great Commission.
However, we must never fall into an unhealthy and unscriptural attitude as to the importance of a building when planting and nurturing churches.
Churches can surely function without the aid of specially constructed buildings. This has been proven in church history throughout the ages. In fact, history shows that the church will actually grow faster and be healthier without church buildings than with them.
The house church movement is only a part of the move of God back to simplicity. God is moving on many fronts to bring His Church into holiness and purity. This has always been His will and design.
It is not as if God suddenly woke up one day to the Church’s need and started a movement to meet it. It is just that finally there are more and more people hearing what the Lord has been saying all the time: “GIVE ME BACK MY CHURCH!!!”
I am convinced that the attitude of the Church should be, “Lord, unless you specifically tell us to build, buy or rent buildings, we are going to plant and multiply churches without them.”
I am open to the idea of buildings, but I am not open to restricting church planting to the traditional building-centered idea of church. The need for SATURATION CHURCH PLANTING is too great.
We will never fulfill the Great Commission in the foreseeable future by continuing to embrace the traditional concept of church. That idea will simply not allow for a massive movement of church planting that will be necessary to disciple the nations.
For centuries, the Church has elaborately and ornately designed and decorated beautiful, awe-inspiring buildings. These have been called churches.
In some cases these buildings called churches have themselves become objects of worship. Huge sums of money dedicated to God have been spent on erecting and maintaining these “sacred” buildings.
This era is coming to an end. There is a movement among God’s people back to simplicity. It is a move away from institutionalized, politicized and over-organized Christianity.
The New Testament must be our guide for faith and practice in all things. Let it be our guide in this matter of church buildings. Let it guide our understanding concerning the true place of buildings in the worldwide spread of the message of Jesus Christ our Lord.