Thought No. 2 from #arcconf: Magnificent Buildings

–Daniel S. Ferguson

There is a weird tension when it comes to church buildings. On the one hand, you want the building to be warm, inviting, and a place that people will want to come back to. It needs to fit the number of people you expect on a Sunday morning, and you want it to have all the technology you need to run whatever you’re doing. That often means big, expensive, well-designed buildings, like the one that hosted us for ARC Conference 2017:

These kinds of buildings seat thousands; have state-of-the-art lighting, sound, projection, and video; and are complete with coffee shops, tech-infused classrooms, bookstores, high-end kids’ rooms, and amazing office space. They’re truly amazing buildings, and they serve some truly amazing functions.

But the tension is that, to some people, to the post-Christian in particular, these buildings are just too much. They and I know how much money they cost, and we wonder with each fantastic amenity if anything in front of us is a selfish waste of some kind.

This isn’t to say that the buildings are selfish wastes. That’s not (always) true. But there’s a psychological tension in their head when they see a building that costs tens of millions of dollars and they know they’re expected to tithe their ten percent.

Is this judgment fair? Probably not. Most buildings are exactly what they need to be, and just because they’re designed well doesn’t mean that they’re overly expensive. Good things cost money, and you want the thing you’re presenting to the world to be good.

But just like with celebrity pastors, I worry about first impressions, particularly for the post-Christians who are so close to my heart. I don’t want them to ooh and ahh over a building, nor do I want them to be turned off by how expensive it all must be. I want them to visit an environment that is welcoming and excellent, but not one that sets off their this-might-be-a-hoax radar, which is already very sensitive.

So how does a church portray excellence without seeming gaudy? It’s not easy. It takes a balance. Cameras to film the service are a really good idea for live streaming and the website, but maybe you only need two or three static cameras to film the stage, instead of using a jib crane.

Coffee and doughnuts are really nice things to provide to your guests on Sunday morning (though our waistlines could live without the donuts), but maybe you don’t need to have mochas and lattes and twelve kinds of pastries available. (Though, seriously, I did really enjoy having San Pellegrino at the conference…)

Clean bathrooms are of course a must, but maybe you don’t need to use Bath and Body Works soaps and have free deodorant in there. (Because anyone who needs it has bigger issues…)

None of those things is necessarily bad. They all add extra elements to the experience that can be really good. I’m not judging these churches for having them. But I do wonder what post-Christians, who make up a massive and growing percentage of the country now, think of them. And that gets me to worrying. We so often only get one shot at them, and I’d hate to ruin it because we, ironically, spent too much on them.

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