I am not sure if there is another ordained guy who loves historic church buildings more than me. I have been an amateur architect all my adult life, and I have never been unwilling to stop for a few minutes to see a beautiful old building, hallowed by centuries of Christian Worship. I have also, more than once, been called to help build new ones, confident that doing so was pleasing to God. But I am not confused about the true nature of the church. It is the body of Christ. It is the People of God. It is made up of flesh and blood believers on this earth. When a building is lost, it may be sad; when a believer is martyred, Christ is crucified afresh.
NAMS is in the people business, though we were birthed as a missionary order helping to plant new churches. At the beginning of our journey (in 1994) we did not realize how different it would have been for our “marketing” if we said we were in the “people planting” business. Now we do.
Many Christians in the West are almost incapable of imagining the church of Jesus Christ without imagining buildings. Those who pray for and dream of a new dawn of faithful church expansion must do so, however. New work that requires the early building of a new physical structure can never keep pace with the Holy Spirit of God, when he gives a new revival of faith. One reason the early church was able to expand so rapidly, and thoroughly, throughout the Mediterranean Region, was because the early believers did not need special buildings to spread their faith. They only needed friends to share with, and a home to meet in.
Not too long ago, I was involved with a parish church that was running out of space on Sunday. They were holding three services every week, and two of them were almost standing room only. So they raised money to build a bigger building. I agreed with their plan, for the sake of spreading the kingdom, and helped them in every way. When they were finished, it was now possible for them to welcome almost four times as many people to any one service. And they continued to grow to fill that space. But when I suggested that they should start a new congregation, three miles away, they balked. This seemed too threatening. Nothing I was able to do could change their mind. They could not see the harvest. My ministry had to move on.
Some years went by, and I was told that the congregation was barely hanging on. Numbers had fallen precipitously, and the financial burden of the new buildings was crippling the remnant left behind. My heart sank, but I was not surprised.
This story could be repeated over and over, throughout Europe and America. I think it could be said in Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand as well. Wherever English or European Christians have gone, this pattern can be seen. Is it because there were no believers among them? No. It is because these communities lost their way. They assumed the building was the church, rather than a physical and temporary dwelling place for the church. They gave their best energies and resources to that which does not last.