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So... Do You Have a Building?

[Originally published Dec. 6, 2018]

The front door to the Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton

That's a question I get asked a lot. Nearly every time I talk about the vision for the Maker’s Place--a new United Methodist neighborhood resource center in Trenton, NJ--people ask me, “Where’s this going to be? Do you have a building?” It’s a great question. After all, if the name of the thing is, “The Maker’s Place,” there ought to be a place for it on the map.

So when people ask, “Do you have a building,” the short answer is, “Not yet, but we’re working on it.” The more interesting answer is, “Not yet, and I think it’d be great if you didn’t either.”

Buildings aren’t bad. In fact, they’re some of our greatest assets, aside from God the Maker and God’s people. Buildings provide all sorts of intrinsic and innovative possibilities for Christian faith and social witness.

But here’s the thing I’ve learned: you don’t know what you’re missing when you’re missing a building.

I sometimes wish that every church could be lucky enough to be in my situation for six weeks or six months. I’m trying to run a Christian ministry without a fixed address. It’s a huge inconvenience, and a tremendous blessing.

With asset-based thinking, every need is really an asset or aspiration in disguise. So here are three key things I’ve learned about ministry without a building. It might help you rethink how you look at church, and how you love your neighbors.

Without a building, you’ve got to move out into your community

This might sound a little obvious, but without a building, you’re forced to move out into your community.

So often in congregations today, we bemoan the people who aren’t here (“People don’t come to church anymore!”) and then lay on the guilt pretty thick when they do (“My, my, I haven’t seen you in ages. Let’s hope the roof doesn’t fall in!”). Not only is this deficit-based thinking--focused on what isn’t there, rather than what is--but it’s based on a hidden assumption: namely, that people are supposed to come to us.

When you don’t have a building, you’re freed from that assumption. Because the Maker’s Place doesn’t have a fixed place yet, there’s nothing else to do but to join people where they already are.

As a result, I’ve come to know Trenton way better than if I’d stuck out a sign and waited for the world to come to me (and I’d have been waiting a long time). Trenton is a big small town--population 85,000, and only one Starbucks. I’ve met everybody at that Starbucks, from the mayor to the homeless. I’ve talked with cops and artists and government workers. After hundreds of conversations in coffee shops, workplaces, parks, and homes, I’m getting a sense of the things that bring people joy, and the things they really wish they could change. I’ve met people in-between churches--who would be interested in finding a good one, if only someone would recommend the right place. I’ve met people who want to use their gifts to make their community better--they’re just looking for the chance to connect.

All this life is swirling around us, right outside our doors. It’s a pity we’re inside, wondering where everybody is.

Don’t get me wrong: we always have to be inviting people in. Open hearts, open minds, and open doors, we say. But a door opens in both directions. Sometimes, we’ve got to be the ones who go to them.

If you’re a pastor or active church member, I’d recommend making sure you do one thing each week that gets you out. Try visiting places where diverse groups of people come together outside home or work (sociologists call this a “Third Place”). It might be a coffee shop, a barber shop, or a particular area of your neighborhood. Spend some time there. You might be surprised by what you find.

If you want to kick things up a notch, host your next outreach committee in the cafe around the corner. Maybe you could start your next program out of the library. Whatever you do, try moving out into your community. If we can see with fresh eyes, it might change how we do things inside.

Without a building, you’ve got to travel light

Almost every church building I’ve ever been to has its fair share of church clutter. Bolted to the walls are membership rosters from 1993-1995. The basement is filled with old bowling trophies; the closets are jammed with plastic organizers, stuffed with an irresponsible number of cotton balls and tongue depressors. I’m not saying our churches should look like Starbucks. But most of us change the drapes in our homes more than once every four decades. I’m not sure why we can’t do the same with the house of God.

The nice thing about not having a building is that you’ve got to travel light. To store anything for The Maker’s Place, I have to put it in my basement or call in a favor. I have a very small basement, and only get so many favors. You quickly learn to ask yourself: “Is this thing absolutely essential to my mission?” If not, you discover the joy of making sure that it gets used up or given away. After all, God only ever promises us enough for today.

There’s a line from the Bible that says, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” (Heb. 12:1). Church clutter isn’t a sin, but it often hinders us in our essential mission. Our buildings often become containers, rather than conduits. Not everything in a church is sacrosanct, simply because it’s sat there long enough. Not everything should be thrown out either, just because it’s not hip with the kids. You’ve got to use some judgment. The hardest part about the clutter is that most of us don’t even notice it anymore.

As your church prepares to welcome new people at Christmas time, take a moment to do a walk through of your building and see it with an outsider’s eyes. If you’re really brave, invite someone who doesn’t attend your church to come with you. They’ll notice things you’ve long since gotten used to. It might be painful at first, but I find that sometimes, to keep in step with the Spirit, you have to travel light.

Without a building, you’ve got to embrace your mission in the world

Without four walls, going into all the world becomes a lot more straightforward. It’s also a lot more challenging.

My lack of a building has required me to think outside the box. The good news is that creative thinking doesn’t have to be radically original. For example, I’ve started a Bible discussion group (a fairly standard thing to do). The difference is that we hold it at the Trenton Starbucks over a lunch hour, in a community room with glass partitions. It’s a bit of work getting absolute strangers to come to a Bible study, but the nice thing is they don’t have far to go. Soon other people poke their heads in and ask what's going on. The whole thing feels a lot different from your average Bible discussion. In part, that’s because we’re not in a church building.

Methodism started because people embraced their mission in the world. Circuit riders could keep up with a moving frontier because they weren’t primarily concerned with buildings. John Wesley said, “The world is my parish,” because he wouldn't accept something more traditional. Church happened wherever they could gather people. Of course, out of those gatherings came buildings, and rightly so. But when we’re at our best, we’re embracing our mission in the world.

I started this off by saying that I sometimes wish every church could be without a building for six weeks or six months. You get creative, you lose the clutter, and you move toward the people around you. But of course, you don’t need weeks or months. Each of us can have the gift of six days a week without a building. It’s what you do with the time between Sundays that makes all the difference in the world.

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