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The Worship of Idols
By: Bill Easum

Lately I've been doing a lot of thinking about why people tend to worship wooden or brick idols.  As if that isn't enough, I've been pondering why people have more an affinity to things than to one another. And, as if that isn't enough, I've been wondering why Christians seem to worship their buildings more than they do God's mission given to them to disciple the world.

What got me thinking along these lines was a consultation I did lately where the church needed to both hire staff and build a new worship center. We know, for example, when a church builds a new worship center, it's not unlikely the church will grow 20-30 percent that first year but only retain around 5% of the growth over the next couple of years. And we know why churches don't retain more of the people than they do; the church didn't add enough staff to equip and retain the extra number of people. So, what's the answer? Add more staff before or while building.

So I recommended that they add two years of two staff positions into the upcoming capital fund drive. Makes sense, doesn't it? What do you think they did? They decided they couldn't afford it.  And guess what? Three years from now, they will look back on this decision and say, "We wish we had added those two staff positions." How do I know this is what they are going to do? Because, over the past 25 years, I've recommended this more than four dozen times. And how many churches do you suppose took the advice six that I can remember?

The conclusion: People will borrow money for buildings but not for staff.  Now, to me, that suggests most church leaders care more about things than people.

So, let's have some fun with this. Why not consider adding an 11th commandment? Ready?  "Thou shalt not love thy buildings more than your God."  Now, I know, we can't just run out and add another commandment. Goodness knows we have enough trouble modeling the 10 we've got! But, if it were possible, how would this 11th commandment change the way we do things?

Just for the fun of it, what's the first image that comes to mind when I say the word church? A building? Now, what is the first image that comes to mind when I ask you to recall the church you grew up in as a child? I'll bet you saw a picture of a church building. Remember the childhood jingle that was accompanied by hand signs? "Here's the church and here's the steeple. Open the door and see all the people."

Recently a church planter told me that his growing band of Christians had met in a variety of locations over two years. Our conversations centered around the issues he faced, primarily the constant pressure by some of his people to find a permanent "church home." He said to me, "The people are asking me when we're going to buy property and build so that we can have 'a real church.' What do I tell them?" 

The sad truth is we are so prone to worship brick idols that we have equated the word church with a building. Many of us have substituted worship of place for worship of God. We have substituted a reverence for brick and mortar for a reverence for the Holy. So, what?

Our worship of our buildings has robbed us of our passion for the souls of people.

When I see a church so tied up in its buildings that it worships them I know that church is not only dying on the outside they are dying on the inside. Worship of idols never fills our souls.

Our buildings determine too much of our ministry.

We bring people "to church" instead of sending disciples out to share the good news. When our buildings become obsolete, we refuse to tear them down to make room for more usable facilities. We can't imagine starting a new church without buying land and erecting a building. When the population moves away from the location in which the "church" was built, we refuse to relocate or even consider having a church in two or more locations. We cannot bear to part with familiar furniture, even though it is worn out. We eagerly have special fund drives for building projects but never consider having them for ministry needs. We build buildings without staffing them to ensure that ministry occurs.

Our worship of our located, brick-and-mortar church goes against the grain of the culture of our time.

Until recently, physical property has always been central to society's development. Before currency was invented, people bartered their property. Over time, they built cities so that people could find safety in numbers and reduce the amount of time it took to conduct commerce. In such a world, location provided visibility. In the modern world, property was sold based on the amount of space and location. Buildings were rented on the basis of how much space was required. Demographers refer to people born before 1946 as the "Builders." In the latter half of the 20th century, location, location, location became the byword of business. In modernity "place, space, and location" were kings. And the saying held true that "if we build it, they will come."

All of that has changed. Relationships are to the new world what place and space were to the old world. The importance of place is disappearing. The meaning of space, location, and property is being redefined. Because of the Internet and cell phones, to mention only two digital wonders, people don't have to huddle together in crowded cities or live near their jobs. Fewer people "go to work" today than ever before. Distance determines the cost of fewer and fewer things.

Location is being defined by one's URL. Companies can locate their screen-based activity anywhere on earth, wherever they can find the best bargain of skills and productivity (I still don't know my webpage's physical location). Space is becoming how many bytes of server hardware a group has. Whereas one of the hardest things my mother ever did was to give up her home, one of the hardest things people have to do now is to give up their online access, their URL, or their domain name. 

Recently, on one of our online forums, a conversation began about multiple-site churches. After a couple of days of email conversation, the following post appeared: "I don't understand how anyone in their right mind could even consider a church having two locations. How can you divide the Body of Christ like that?" Whoever posted this addition to the conversation had taken the worship of the located church to its ultimate conclusion. He equated the Body of Christ with a local congregation of people located in one place. That person would have had trouble understanding the church at Philippi that met in homes all over the city.

Wonderful Examples of the Emerging Church

Every month I run into out-of-the-norm gatherings of Christians who reject the trappings of the located, brick-and-mortar church. Over the 20-year history of Saddleback Church (Lake Forest, California), it has had over 50 locations. Its leaders knew that space, place, and location do not limit God's presence. Thousands of people worshiped together before they located in one place. First Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, has more than 200 locations. Coffee houses, cafe churches, and rollerblade churches abound with young followers of Jesus who spend endless hours in conversation, exploring their experiences with the Holy. The house-church movement continues to gain momentum in every area of the country. Are these gatherings of Christians sowing the seeds of what Christianity will look like in the not-too-distant future? 

A Lasting Image

A couple of years ago on New Year's Eve, an event took place that has left me with a haunting memory. I watched a 10-year-old, multi-million-dollar casino in Las Vegas imploded at midnight to make room for a bigger and more functional casino. The building, still in perfect condition, just didn't serve the mission of the casino operators as well as a new building could. So they tore it down to make room for another. No sentiment, just mission-driven.

What impressed me about this event? Why can't church leaders love God's mission for the church as much as those casino operators love the mission of making money? So, I ask you the question that a vast majority of our dying churches need to hear: What would change in your church if your church leaders were more in love with the Great Commission than with their facilities?

Bill Easum is president of 21st Century Strategies, Inc. a full-service church consulting group since 1987 whose mission is to equip Christian for global impact, www.churchconsultations.com.

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