What are Buildings For?

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St. Theresa de Avila in Bodage Bay, California

We go to church, we meet people at church, and we have rules about what you can or cannot do at church, and yet I’m sure I’m not the first preacher to tell you that “The Church is not a building. The church is the holy people of God.” But, as any pastor will also tell you, at a certain point it sure helps to have a building. This past November when the new faith community I lead had the privilege of moving into our very own space we did not take it for granted, but we celebrated our building as a gift from God.

Our Sunday gatherings had outgrown the youth room we were borrowing and so we were thankful for the extra space we now had. Beyond those couple of hours each weekend we found ourselves asking, “What exactly are church buildings for?” The churches we had grown up in used their buildings throughout the week primarily for ministry programming – committees, bible studies, prayer groups, etc – which seemed fine to us too except that our community had been doing those sorts of things in homes and coffee shops and not only did we now prefer those settings, but we had also experienced growth through them. We had come to see that it was actually a good thing for the Church to gather outside the church.

So, we decided to treat our building like we would any other asset in our community and leveraged it for the sake of our mission. In short, we chose to use our space to build relationships with the people in our neighborhood that we longed to know and prayed would one day join us. This decision led us to ask different questions about our space – dangerous questions, like: what if we privileged non-members over members in the use of our building and what if we used our facility to help build other platforms and organizations in the community instead of just our own?

Knowing what our building was for profoundly shaped the way we designed it. Every room became a multi-purpose room and every piece of furniture had to be mobile. The look and feel of our building took on the flavor of the neighborhood so much so that many folks passing by have confused it for a restaurant, music venue, or art gallery. The art we display and the items we place in our “retail windows” often carry spiritual significance for our Church community but are abstract in nature so that all can enjoy them. We even branded our main gathering space “Nash Hall” both as a throwback to the building’s history, once “Nash Automotive,” but also as a gesture of hospitality to groups who might have a hard time promoting the location of their event at a “church.”

This path we’re on is not without challenge or controversy. Things get broken, we’re more liable to theft, and we no longer have total control over what’s said within our space; but we are more connected to our neighbors, and I believe God is blessing that. This weekend we’re excited to be hosting TEDx Raleigh, and in a couple of months we’ll be an official music venue for our city’s biggest music festival, Hopscotch. Through both of those events and many more we’re building relationships. The kingdom is advancing as the Church gets out in the world and the world finds itself inside a church.

Image attribution: scorton / Thinkstock

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Justin is the Campus Pastor of Church on Morgan, a multi-site community of Edenton Street United Methodist Church in Raleigh, NC and holds a M.Div from Duke Divinity School and a M.S.W. from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He and his wife Nicole have two children, Levi and Stella.

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