Replanting a Church: Dan Kimball Changes Positions on Church Buildings

Dan Kimball, author of many books and a lead thinker in the emerging church movement, has long been opposed to churches owning buildings. He’s changed his opinion

If you had asked me eight years ago what I thought about church buildings, I would have said, “Who needs a building? The early church didn’t have buildings, and we don’t need them either!” But I was wrong.

My anti-building phase was a reaction to having seen so much money spent on church facilities, often for non-essential, luxury items. I was also reacting to a philosophy of ministry that treated church buildings like Disneyland; a place consumers gather for entertainment. But these abuses had caused me to unfairly dismiss the potential blessing of buildings as well.

Consider the building occupied by Compassion International in Colorado Springs. It has a well-groomed lawn with sprinkler system, an attractive sign, and an expansive parking lot. It’s a nice facility. But it’s more than just a building—it is the headquarters and training center for a ministry that brings physical and spiritual nourishment to more than one million children in 25 countries. The Compassion building is used for a missional purpose, not simply as a place for Christians to gather and consume religious services.

When we planted our church in 2004, we needed a place to meet. We found a very traditional church building that had a sizable “fellowship hall” originally used only for donuts and coffee on Sundays. Wanting to use the building differently, we converted the fellowship hall into a public coffee lounge featuring music and art from the outside community. The Abbey, as it’s now called, is open seven days a week and offers free internet access.

Just yesterday I was in The Abbey and saw about 20 people, not part of our congregation, studying and hanging out. (During finals week I counted 90 students packed into the place.) While there I talked to a brand new Christian who has been coming to our gatherings. He found out about our church from a Buddhist friend. His friend loves coming to The Abbey and recommended our church because he trusted us.

We’ve also used our building to serve our community in times of crisis. When wildfires forced nearby residents to flee their homes, our building became an overnight refuge for those without a place to stay.

These missional opportunities would not be possible without a building.

What about the sanctuary? When we first got the building, one person said the sanctuary “looked like a funeral parlor.” We sought to remake the worship space to express our congregation’s values of community, worship, and service.

First, we removed the pews. Looking at the back of peoples’ heads simply didn’t communicate our values of community and participation.

We also invited local artists to create images during our worship gatherings. These were then displayed in the space.

The only cross in the building was very small, so we brought in a huge iron cross as the visual focus of our worship space. This clearly communicated that Christ was at the center of our mission.

We lowered the large wooden pulpit in order to facilitate more relational teaching, and we added a prayer shawl over the podium to reinforce our frequent talks about the importance of prayer in changing lives.

Little by little the space that had been powerfully missional in the 1930s and ’40s was transformed to reflect missional values of the 21st century. In 20 years I’m sure the way these values are expressed will have changed again, and I hope the design of the sanctuary and fellowship hall will change accordingly.

What’s important is that our mission drives our aesthetics and our use of space.

Today I am incredibly thankful we have a building. It allows us meet in larger groups for worship, and it allows for training classes that equip people for mission. We also use our space all week and welcome the public into it.

So, I have recanted from my earlier belief that buildings drain resources and create consumer Christians. I was wrong. Now I see them as missionary centers to impact lives for the gospel.

Notice that, although he’s now pro-building, his use of the building is radically different from many churches.

* They chose a non-traditional name

* They use the space missionally, that is, as a “missionary center”

* They open space to the public daily

* They display works of art from non-members

* They offer coffee to the public

* They have non-member musicians play in the public space

* They use the building for disaster housing

* The worship center has no pews (I assume they have movable seats and a gathered-family seating arrangement, that is, semi-circular)

* They chose iconography (visual images), such as crosses, prayer shawls, and a lowered pulpit, that communicate their values

And they took over a space from a traditional church that had evidently either failed or chosen to leave the community. That ought to tell us something.

So, dear readers, what do you think of this approach to the “meeting house”?

Can any of these ideas be profitably put into effect in a suburban or rural setting?

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay Guin

I am an elder, a Sunday school teacher, a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a lawyer. I live in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home of the Alabama Crimson Tide. I’m a member of the University Church of Christ. I grew up in Russellville, Alabama and graduated from David Lipscomb College (now Lipscomb University). I received my law degree from the University of Alabama. I met my wife Denise at Lipscomb, and we have four sons, two of whom are married, and I have a grandson and granddaughter.
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7 Responses to Replanting a Church: Dan Kimball Changes Positions on Church Buildings

  1. David Himes says:

    Of course, they can be. That's not really the question. The real question is whether or not we are willing to do it.

    And the most likely answer to that question is, NO.

    That's too bad, and I hope I'm wrong. But the odds are deeply in my favor.

  2. John Grant says:

    I think its a wonderful move!

    I fear our more traditional approach of using the expensive buildings we have now for only 4 hours a week and requiring it to sit empty the rest of the time is a waste of money.

    We would do better in using the Lords money to rent the local denominational (whichever one) building for our 4 hours as it would be cheaper and the facilities much nicer.

    We could do a lot of good work with that empty buildings expenses money.

    WE COULD do as the article above, but, I don't think that will ever happen. If a basketball goal on the edge of the parking lot would send you to hell,…..

  3. Jerry Starling says:

    It is amazing that we use something about which God is totally silent to excuse us from doing that which is explicitly commanded.

    As a fund raiser for Eastern European Mission, I have heard many times, "We are cutting back on missions right now because we are in a building program."

    I like a story I heard about Otis Gatewood. His sponsoring church was in a building program and was considering whether or not they should include a bell tower that cost $30,000 in the early 1950's. Someone asked him what he thought. He said, "Build it!"

    Then, after they built it, he came back to them and said, "Brethren, if you can afford $30,000 for a bell tower, certainly you can afford $30,000 for work in Germany."

    I don't know if that story is true or not, but it is one I heard – and it sounds in character!

    I have no problem with church buildings per se. I do have a problem with under-using them, with spending too much on them, with allowing maintenance of a building to squelch missional work at home and abroad, and with thinking you must have a building to have a church (both at home and abroad).

    See an example of mission work abroad without a focus on having to have a building here. These are people who are growing the church, not building buildings. May God raise up more of them.

    Jerry Starling
    Eastern European Mission
    committedtotruth.wordpress.com

  4. bradstanford says:

    Kudos to a man who is so honest. I don't think he was wrong, initially. I think he saw clearly how a large amount of kingdom-moving money was being wasted. No condemnation for that! What he discovered is a group of people who actually understand what resources are for, and it changed his life. This is exactly how the kingdom should operate.

    "Missionary Center" – I love that. To me, the term "church building" was just officially laid to rest.

    Opening the building to the community as an internet cafe is brilliant. As one living in a rural town where 56k dial-up is still normal, this would far and away provide for a major need here. Plus, being winter, the coffee would go a long way to serve the community, too!

    Thanks, Jay. I'm already plotting how to get started…

  5. John Grant says:

    Money on buildings has always been a sore spot with me.

    There is a BIG one for sale here in Birmingham and I would like to see on the big for sale sign something I see on a used car lot.

    Lower mileage brings more money than high (usage) mileage in automobiles and its low mileage is put on the sticker. Why not put on the church building sign: "Low usage, only two hours on Sunday and one hour on Sunday night and one hour on Wednesdays". Still practically new!

    In any business the amount of usage our buildings get for what they cost to build and maintain would be totally unjustified. What good they could do in a community. Use Authorized is bound to be asked. Is the waste authorized?

  6. wjcsydney says:

    My church http://www.northsidechurch.org.au is a purpose built combined Conference Centre and church. The income from the conference centre pays for running expenses and gets the community into the building where we have an opportunity to get the unchurched into the building, "make the Northside difference" and show them Christ. The building is used every day and works wonderfully.

  7. Guy says:

    hmm…i have mixed feelings about coffee shops.

    but regardless of that, as long as you have a church building you have some people who are going to have a very traditional view of its purpose and as long as any of those people are in positions of prominance in a congregation, i think you'll be fighting to create a new paradigm. i think some people probably need to go without a building altogether in order to challenge their church-building-paradigm before they'll be ready to rethink the need and purpose of one.

    –Guy

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