Church Buildings – A Ministry Reflection

(Dave Clancey, June 2023)

There’s nothing in the Bible which says that local churches should have their own buildings, and nothing that says they shouldn’t.  What is commanded is that churches should meet, and therefore having a place to meet is necessary.  In the Bible we see Christians gathering in the temple courts (Acts 2:46) and individual’s houses (e.g. Phlm 2).  The earliest evidence of purpose-built churches comes from the mid 3rd century, and since then it’s been pretty normal practice for churches, where they can, to have purpose-built buildings.  Of course, not having your own buildings doesn’t mean a church can’t meet – we have lived this experience both recently and after the 2011 earthquakes.  We are very thankful for those who have provided us with venues during those times.  My purpose here is to reflect from a ministry point of view some of the advantages, and disadvantages, of having our own church building. While 253 Colombo Street is the issue on the table, and I’ll refer to it specifically later on, I’ll first make some general comments about the ministry of the church and buildings.

The commitment and responsibility of a church is the proclamation of the gospel and the ministry of the Word. This ministry looks up in praise and worship and out in love and evangelism, honouring God, maturing Christians, welcoming in all, and ultimately blessing the world.   All sorts of things have the potential to divert churches away from this commitment, including having (or developing) a building.   But, it’s worth pointing out that not having a building can also do that as well.  

Building development has the potential to divert money, time, and effort away from ministry, but buildings have the potential to support, resource, promote and enable such ministry.  Not having buildings increased workload on those setting up / packing down, can reduce stability and ability for long-term planning, minimises physical presence in a community, and reduces non-sunday ministry opportunities. 

My view is that, on balance, and from a ministry point of view, having a building is far more preferable than not.  There are a number of reasons for this.

First, a building is a physical and permanent expression of the church itself.  We need to be clear, God’s people gathered together around his word and sacraments is what the church is.  Should we own our own building we would no more be a church then when we meet in a school hall (or a rest home, or outside).  But having a building is one way which gives expression to who we are when we’re not gathered together.  It is a significant sign and indicator of our existence to those around us.  I’m pretty confident to say that the buildings of St Saviour’s and St Nicholas’ were the most prominent expressions of our church being present and active in South Christchurch, and of great help to us as we spoke to others about the fact we went to church (i.e., these were the churches we went to). 

Second, having a building provides us with ‘our’ place.  Into this place we can welcome others.  It is a place which is consecrated – set aside for a particular use – and is a place from which we can reach out into the community around us.  It provides a space from which the church can operate not only on Sundays but throughout the week.  It provides not only opportunity for such ministry, and also obligation.   Again, it’s worth noting that not having a building doesn’t mean that we don’t do that.  And we need to be careful thinking that a building will make that easy.  A building will simply be a means which will help us do that. 

Third, a building provides longevity to the church. One of the reasons we joined with other churches to form a Diocese was because we were convinced by the idea of “not just us, not just now.”  We weren’t only looking out for ourselves in the present moment, but also looking to care for those who weren’t with us yet.  In the case of the Diocese this was for those who hadn’t yet disaffiliated and would do in the future.   

A building is a very significant way in which we – now – can serve those who are to come after us at Trinity.  For us to give generously now is to not only help us in our ministry, but also to help those not yet with us (because some of them haven’t been born yet!).  I’m thinking specifically about how a building provides a place from which ministry can happen in the decades to come – long after many of us are dead.  For those people, having a building removes uncertainty for how ministry will happen in the future, freeing them to get on with the ministry of word and prayer.  What it will cost us should be considered in the light of the benefit to us and those who come after us.  Most of us have benefited in this way in other churches, coming to faith and growing in faith in a building built and paid for by faithful Christians long dead.  This means our present decision isn’t just about a building that is good for us, but is actually a decision about investment into supporting and creating a legacy of gospel ministry in the decades to come.

Let me speak to the specifics of 253 Colombo Street.  It is not the perfect building.  But, from a ministry point of view, I think it is a very good building.

  • The location is exceptional. According to the City Council, there are about 16000 vehicles which pass the building every day.  There is residential development happening all around, as well as a mix of houses on the side streets and businesses on Colombo Street.  This prominence and visibility and ease of access for people is such a blessing.  Being able to say “I go to church opposite KFC / Mitre 10 on Colombo Street” is easy and immediately known. We had a number of people come to church at St Saviour’s and St Nicholas because they saw the building and decided to come in. 
  • The shape of the development is well proportioned, by which I mean it seems that the auditorium space, the foyer space, the meeting room space upstairs all work together in terms of size and layout.  Yes, it would be nice to have a couple more rooms, and it’d be great to have a few more carparks.  But from a ministry point of view what is proposed is entirely functional and will work well for the church we are.  The size of the building will facilitate church/congregation planting as it restricts us from growing a congregation over about 200. 
  • It’s cost-effective.  While what is before us contains some very large numbers, I’m told that it is, per square metre, excellent value for money. 
  • It is plain and functional.  It’s not a classically beautiful building from the outside, and the proposed development inside is unlikely to win awards for architectural design.  Each of us will have our views about that, but one advantage from an ongoing ministry point of view is that there doesn’t seem to be much that can go wrong with it once it’s up and running. 
  • It’s likely to be the only CCA church in the middle of the city.  Latimer Church and St Stephens Shirley are both likely to build church buildings – Latimer are on the outer northwest fringe of the city (the former Rosebank Winery), and St Stephens are in the north east of the city.  It seems unlikely that Christ Church Roimata or Anchor – the other two parishes on the southern side of the city, will be developing property in the foreseeable future.  

Let me speak to the downsides/concerns. 

  • Parking is limited, that’s true.  But it’s about the same number of carparks that we currently have at St Martins.  And it’s not significantly fewer than we had at St Saviour’s.  
  • It’s expensive.  There’s no question that this is a large amount of money.  And if we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it.  My personal observation as the Vicar would be that a church should avoid any development which would result in the servicing of debt being one of the largest regular and ongoing expenditures of the church ‘s budget.  If that were the case then my concern would be that the church could easily slip into debt servicing being the tail which wags the dog. If we can’t afford it, we can’t afford it. 
  •  The costliness will not only be financial.  This project will cost some people in the church lots of time and effort.  If we proceed with it then we will need to support them, encourage them, and most likely free them up from other forms of service in the church (which will mean that we might need to pick up other ministries ourselves).
  • One particular issue at the moment is the uncertainty about our Vicar.  I agree that at any point in time when the senior leadership of a church changes there is uncertainty, and even more so when a church is (potentially) embarking on a big task like this.  I’m sorry about my part in that!  However, this highlights that any decision to develop a building must be one made, and driven, by the church family as whole.   It must not be the Vicar’s project, nor must the Vicar derail it.  In the Anglican church the Vicar has spiritual leadership, but practical property matters are not his purview.  Therefore, if the church is not for it – and if individuals in the church are not willing to both give financially and in time and involvement – then my view is that it shouldn’t go ahead.  Also, any plan for development which would see ministry staff taking a key lead should (again, in my view) be avoided – that is not what ministers are equipped or called for.  The ministry staff must be involved (because the building must be fit for ministry purpose), and clergy and staff should be supportive of the project, but (in my view) it should be led and driven by the church, through those whom they want to do this. 

A church building would, in my view, be a great benefit for Trinity South Christchurch. It would provide ministry stability and opportunities, and be a blessing not only to us now, but to those who are not yet part of us.  But, we must remember that a building does not make a church.  And that we will be (and must continue to be) God’s people in the south of Christchurch wherever we are physically based.  Whatever the decision we make, we will make it together and my prayer is that this process will grow us in trust and dependence on the Lord, and in love and service of each other, more and more.  

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