For the Past or the Future – What Are We Building?

If you keep on doing what you have been doing

you will keep on getting what you have been getting’



Some time ago I wrote of my great concern, even despair, at what I saw what was happening as churches emerged from Covid 19 restrictions. This despair was driven by what I observed as the failure by Church Leaderships to use the opportunity provided by the lockdowns to reflect on the twenty and more pre-Covid years of largely failed missional endeavours, and corresponding Church decline. This was a golden, and perhaps never to be repeated, opportunity to look at doing things differently. O vain Hope! That opportunity has gone begging.

Rather than take that opportunity, as soon as possible churches just jumped back onto the business-as-usual ‘Down Escalator’, all energy being devoted to cranking up the ‘Model T’ Ford version of ‘Church’ that has been the norm for at least a century. The ‘Model T’ being an analogy for something much loved and useful in the past but now no longer fit for purpose.

As I previously observed, a significant aspect of this return to the past is that resource-consuming ‘Square Wheels’ now seem to be sprouting again! The ‘Square Wheel’ is my term for missional ventures and strategies that didn’t work very well the last time we used them. Yet we once more see them sprouting across the ecclesial landscape with no better, in fact even less, prospect of success than previously.

Regrettably however, we now see yet another type of heavy resource-devouring activity springing up, namely, the ‘Church building project’ (the use of the word  ‘church’ here is in the sense of the bricks, mortar and concrete type). There seems to be an unusual number of these appearing on the Church landscape in the last few months, perhaps because of the release of the pandemic-induced logjam. There is a variety of such projects, ranging from $$ Multi-million new builds, through the still very costly rebuilding of, or extension of existing buildings.

I write on this issue as someone who does have relevant experience in this area, both from my first career as a civil engineer and also having been responsible for two and a half church new-builds both as a lay person and as a Pastor. These projects being built in the 1980s, the 1990s and in the early 2000s. Based on that experience, and in the context of today’s missional challenge, I have a number of observations to make which may be of interest to those who want to essay the path of a church building or rebuilding project.

  1. The first question to be asked is – As Christians, what should our primary focus be-

To build in bricks and mortar – i.e. The ‘Church-physical’? Or-

To build the ‘Church-spiritual’? That is the body of Christ.

2. My experience shows that is far easier to get a congregation to be enthusiastic about a physical church building project than a ‘Church-spiritual’ building project, i.e. some form of major evangelistic activity, particularly if it involves discomfort.

3. ‘Exciting’ Church-physical building projects often become an all-consuming congregational focus at the expense of ministry.

4. When the project is over, congregations often have a sense of ‘we’ve finished’ and tend to just sit back and ‘enjoy’ their shiny new facility. It can often be very hard to refocus them on their reason for existence, i.e. building the ‘Church-spiritual’.

5. The argument for the physical building project is usually that it will create a better tool for ministry. However, I have rarely, if ever, heard any analysis of the ‘Opportunity Cost’ of the project. The ‘Opportunity Cost’ is the amount of money that would be available for promoting more creative and potentially more missionally fruitful ‘Church-spiritual’-building ministries if the ‘Church-physical’ project was NOT built.

6. Increasingly, a physical building project saddles the congregation with a great debt (sometimes generational) that mortgages the missional future by reducing available resources for ‘Church-spiritual’ ministries in following years.

7.The ‘Prior Question’ is rarely asked. So what is it?

Some years ago when I was in the United Kingdom I read an article in one of the main national newspapers in regard to the ongoing saga as to what to do about London’s grossly overloaded Heathrow Airport. The article asked a  ‘Prior Question’, one that must be asked before other decisions are made for the rebuilding, reorganization, replacement of any major airport, and to make the point I would suggest of any church infrastructure also. The ‘Prior Question’ was, “if we took a helicopter ride over the city and asked what would we build if London had no airports?”, and part of the answer given was that “we would certainly not build Heathrow”!

The point being that what may have evolved up to today and been highly effective in the past, may well not now be, or more importantly be capable of being changed to be, what is needed for the needs of the hour, and the future. It seems to most often be the case that when assessing a ‘Church-physical’ building project, Churches rarely ask the essential ‘Prior Question’, which is-

‘if we were to build a Mission structure for our area where there were no churches

what would we build?’

In the light of the 21st century accelerating cultural ferment, the answer to that question would most certainly be ‘Nothing like we are planning to build now’. In fact, a second ‘Prior question’ that should be asked before rushing into the financing of any ‘Church-physical’ building project should be-

‘What ministry model will be required in this area in ten to twenty years’ time?

The answer to that question should be the starting point for any discussion and failure to answer it may well result in a new facility that may only be appropriate for the next few years at best, but will not be for the rotating cultural Kaleidoscope of the decades to come.

A book I have written on this topic, due to be published in the next few months, with the title ‘Quantum Mission- Something Completely Different for a Kaleidoscope World’, contains the following statement –

“Quantum Mission is intended to produce multiple forms of Missional Community suitable for an environment in which there is just not enough data available to be able to predict, and therefore plan with any certainty for, the future cultural landscape, or to be more accurate ‘landscapes’. So the process of the development of new missional communities is one of emergence both out of and into uncertainty.”

So to the question. What are we building?

  1. We appear to be building the ‘Church physical’ with many new physical facilities, but we are most certainly not building the ‘Church Spiritual’. ABS Census religious affiliation numbers, congregational attendance numbers and most importantly the numbers of the de-churched and unchurched in congregations have been falling rapidly since the last century and continue to do so.
  2. We are investing large amounts of money in new and upgraded versions of the model of Church that has been failing missionally for several decades; which any basic mathematical analysis will show, cannot even remotely be replicated fast enough to even stabilize let alone reduce the ever-widening gap between the growing population and church membership; and even if we could achieve that required replication we could not possibly fund it.
  3. We are building fixed, rigid and inflexible ‘Church-physical’ facilities as platforms for future mission and launching them into ‘an environment in which there is just not enough data available to be able to predict, and therefore plan with any certainty for, the future cultural landscape, or to be more accurate ‘landscapes’.

The failure to address these realities is the result of a general lack of Critical Analysis of both the standard ‘Sunday-Centric, In-Drag (into services), Christendom-Form’ (SIC) model of ‘Church’, and the waves of Cultural change breaking on the beaches of Australian (Western) society. Such an analysis would show that, while there may be some examples of localised ‘success’, the ‘standard ‘SIC’ model, as all statistics show, has not been and cannot be changed the be fit for purpose in 21st century western society.

What the burgeoning numbers of ‘Church-physical’ New-builds and Re-builds appears to indicate is that the Prior Question of ‘what do we actually need for the mission of the Gospel in our times?’ is being answered (to a large extent subconsciously) with-

         ‘Keep on doing MORE what we have been doing, with the certain result of getting

         MORE of what we have been getting’  

Which means – More of the now long entrenched missional failure.

The only way to avoid that is to ask and answer this ’Prior Question’ honestly-

‘What do we actually need for the mission of the Gospel in our times?’

And ACT upon it! For if we keep on doing what we have been doing we will keep on getting what we have been getting i.e. Entrenched Decline.

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