A few years back, I helped lead a meeting of church planters. “What’s your greatest need?” we asked. I was surprised by one of the top answers we received: buildings.
I couldn’t figure it out. As a new church, we’d had no problem finding places to meet, first in a dance studio, and later in a storefront. I wasn’t aware that others struggled to find space to meet.
But then we started to face problems too. At the beginning of the pandemic, we gave up our storefront. We couldn’t meet in person, and it didn’t seem to make sense to keep paying for space we couldn’t use. Even if we could use it, it was too small given the physical distancing requirements.
Our neighbourhood lacks most of the spaces that new churches might use: schools, community centres, and existing churches. We met in a hot yoga studio for a while but found the heat — up to 40 degrees Celsius — to be a bit much.
Last November, we signed a five-year lease for a new space that’s served us well so far, but we face two main challenges. First, it’s exorbitantly expensive. Second: the clock is ticking. In four years, our lease is up for renewal, and we’ll face market rates in a community where space is in demand.
I’m not complaining. God has been good to us. He’s provided clear answers to prayer and given us exactly what we need, and I’m very grateful.
But I now understand what the church planters said in that meeting. One of the greatest needs faced by new churches is simply finding a place to meet.
The Benefits of Buildings
By definition, churches gather and therefore need spaces in which to meet. These spaces can be small: in living rooms or other multi-use rooms. But as a church grows, it often finds itself needing a larger place to meet.
One option is for a church to buy or rent its own building. I know many view church buildings with suspicion. They sit empty much of the week; they cost money to operate and maintain. They can enable ministry work, but they’re secondary to actual ministry.
They may not be primary or essential, but they’re useful. They not only provide congregations with space to meet and serve but also provide a resource that enables ministry for decades, even centuries, to come.
Mark Dever compares church buildings to time machines. Instead of viewing the church in terms of one generation, he explains, we should anticipate a need for church ministry for years to come. This presents a particular challenge in urban areas: churches are getting priced out of cities.
“That big old building sitting there is how you project the gospel forward in your city,” Dever says. “Maybe your congregation is not much, but you know what, if the Lord tarries 50 years from now, he might raise up a young preacher like a church. So why would you give away that space? Don’t give away that space. Use that space for the Lord.”
Since churches need to gather, new churches face the demand of trying to find a space to meet, which can be both difficult and expensive. If we want churches to continue to serve in particular locations, it can make sense for a church to own its building.
I spoke to a church planting leader in Montreal a few years ago. “For a new church to find a place to meet in a major city takes a miracle,” he said. “So far, we’ve seen five miracles this year.” The need is great, and yet God always provides what we need.
My Three Prayers
We’re four years away from our lease renewal. I have three prayers in mind as I write this.
First: I pray that God will continue to meet our church’s needs, as he has so far. I pray the same for other churches too, especially those who struggle to find meeting spaces.
Second: I pray that churches who own buildings will realize that they’ve been given a gift from God that can be used by them and other congregations, not just now but for years to come.
Finally, and most audaciously, I pray that some wise business people will have the foresight to spot communities like the one in which I serve, where property used to be cheap but is now unaffordable. I pray they will buy properties in these communities, make their money back through shrewd use of that property, and hope to one day give it away to a church that will one day begin that would otherwise struggle to find a building.