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New Horizons

When Not to Build

Ray Bowman with Eddy Hall

When a suburban Philadelphia congregation asked me to design a thousand-seat sanctuary for them, that's exactly what I intended to do. They had called me for the usual reasons: their sanctuary was full, and they were running out of educational space. It was time to build.

To determine how best to design their facility, I first met with the church board for four hours on a Saturday morning. Then I spent several days studying the church's ministries, finances, and use of facilities. Finally, I felt like I had the facts I needed to draft my proposal.

I met with the board again the following Saturday. "What you really need to build, I announced, "is a storage shed.

Had the church invited me two years earlier, I would have designed a thousand-seat sanctuary and cheered them on. "The building will bring more people to Christ, I would have said. "Its beauty will draw you closer to God. People will notice you're here and that you're an important part of the community.

During thirty years of designing church buildings, I heard all these claims from pastors and church boards. I saw no reason not to accept their assumption that bigger buildings translated into greater ministry. But then I began church consulting work. It was this new hat I was wearing—consultant rather than architect—that made the difference.

As an architect, my job had been to design the kind of building the church people wanted. But as a consultant, my job was to advise this fast-growing congregation on what they should do. I came to a startling conclusion: a major building program at that time would in all likelihood stop the church's growth and create financial bondage for years to come.

Over the next ten years, I did consulting work for scores of churches and learned from each of them. Because I was asking questions from a new perspective, the perspective of ministry and outreach, time after time I was forced to rethink some point of the conventional wisdom that I had embraced as an architect. I came to realize that most churches build too big, build too soon, or build the wrong kind of building. It was painful for me to admit that I had encouraged these misguided practices, and that for thirty years much of my well-intentioned advice had actually hurt the churches with which I had worked.

These hard lessons eventually pushed me to a conclusion so unconventional that it sounds like architectural heresy: most churches thinking of building shouldn't build—at least not yet. I became convinced, in fact, that the single most valuable lesson a church can learn about building is when not to build. There are three situations in which a church should not build.

Scrutinize Motivations

First, a church should not build if its reasons for building are wrong. Years ago, a congregation of about 150 people in Arkansas hired me as an architect to design a new sanctuary for them. When I saw their building, I was puzzled. Although the building was older, its location was good and the congregation had never filled it.

Finally, I asked the pastor, "Why do you want a new building?

"The first reason, he answered, "is that these people haven't done anything significant for twenty-five years. This is a way to get them to do something significant.

"Second, the people aren't giving at anywhere near the level they could or should be giving. A building program will motivate them to give more.

"Third, a building program will unite the people behind a common goal.

I believed he was right on all three counts and designed the sanctuary. Now I know that this pastor was trying to do something that never works—solve non-building problems with a building. That church built for the wrong reasons.

Seek Other Alternatives

Second, a church should not build when there is a better way to meet space needs. As I studied the Philadelphia church, I agreed at once that it had a space problem. At its rate of growth, the congregation would soon outgrow their worship space. Between Sunday school and Christian school, their educational space was used up. They had no room for additional staff offices. Building was the obvious solution.

But the wrong one. "I found a room filled with missionary boxes, I told the board. "Now those boxes don't need heat. They don't need lighting. They don't need windows or carpet, do they? I recommended a low-cost storage and maintenance building to free up existing space for educational use.

"This barn on your property is a historic structure, I told them. "It's worth preserving. But you're not getting good use out of it. Then we discussed how they could remodel it into a gymnasium, kitchen, and educational space at half the cost of a comparable new structure.

"You can meet your need for worship space for years to come, I went on, "without the tremendous commitment of time, energy, and money involved in building a new sanctuary. The wall between the existing sanctuary and foyer could be removed to enlarge their worship area. A modest addition could provide them with a new, larger foyer, one that would make it practical to hold two Sunday morning services, immediately doubling their worship seating capacity. The new addition could also house the office space they would soon need for their growing staff.

Finally, I suggested that they replace the fixed worship seating with movable seating. For the comparatively low cost of new chairs, the church could use the largest single space in the building for a wide range of activities—space that would otherwise be unused for all but a few hours a week.

The church adopted the suggestions, completing their remodeling and modest construction projects within a couple of years. They continued to reach out to the unchurched and within six years grew from 300 to 850.

What would have happened if the congregation had moved ahead with their original building plans? The growth histories of other churches suggest the answer.

A fast-growing church launches a major building program to create space for more growth, taking on heavy debt. Though not by design, the building program becomes the congregation's focus. People give correspondingly less attention to the outreach ministries that have been producing growth. Church attendance peaks, drops slightly, and levels off. Their mind-set changes from growth to maintenance, and the church may have no significant growth for decades. Whenever the church seeks creative alternatives to building prematurely, however, ministry to people can continue uninterrupted and growth can continue.

It was at that Philadelphia church that I first began to realize that of the many churches that had hired me to design new buildings, few actually needed them. Most of them simply needed to find ways to use their existing buildings more effectively. What seems obvious to me now came then as a fresh revelation: until a church is fully utilizing the space it has, it doesn't need more.

Minimize Debt

Third, a church should not build when building would increase the risk of financial bondage. When the Philadelphia church commissioned our study, it was still indebted for its existing building. The congregation planned to borrow most of the money for their new one, but the loan payment would have been larger than their existing congregation could have met. Their ability to repay the loan depended on future growth.

I recommended that this congregation change their financial plan to one of living within the income that God provided. This meant they would first pay off their existing mortgage. Then they would do the necessary remodeling and build their modest additions on a cash basis.

This would mean setting money aside regularly for future building needs, so the congregation could pay cash for most or all of their next building. The many thousands of dollars saved on interest would be freed up for the church's true work—ministering to people.

The congregation followed this plan, paying off their debt and expanding their facilities on a cash basis. Then they began setting aside funds regularly so they could pay cash for an anticipated building program in five years.

Because they have not been saddled with debt, they have been free to invest more and more money in ministry to people, including their Christian school and a multifaceted inner-city mission in a nearby neighborhood.

When to Build

But there is a time to build. When pastor and people have come to see buildings merely as tools for ministry and nothing more, the church passes the motivation test.

When a church is so fully utilizing its facilities that it can find no alternative to building that is less costly in time, energy, and money, it passes the need test.

And when a church is living within the income that God has provided and can build without assuming burdensome debt or dipping into funds needed for ministry to people, the church passes the financial readiness test.

When a church wants to build for the right reasons, has no less costly alternatives, and has the funds to build, then and only then is it time to build.

Fifteen Questions to Answer Before You Build

If you think the time may have come for your church to build, fill out this questionnaire. Simply answer each of the following questions with yes, no, or maybe.

  1. Do you expect a new building to attract new people to the church?
  2. Do you want to design a building that will inspire people to worship?
  3. Do you expect your members to be more motivated to reach out to others once you have a new building?
  4. Do you think a building program will motivate your people to give more generously to the work of the church?
  5. Do you expect the building program to unify your people behind a significant challenge?
  6. Do you hope that a building program will involve more people in the work of the church?
  7. Do you see the building as a way to make a statement to the community about the church's importance?
  8. Do you hope that a new building will help your people take more pride in their church?
  9. Do you need a larger sanctuary so the entire congregation can worship together at one time?
  10. Do you need to add more educational space so all your classes can meet at once?
  11. Could your need for more space be met through more creative use of your present facilities, such as converting space to multiple use, changing furnishings, or scheduling services and ministries differently?
  12. Are you still paying off debt on your last building?
  13. Would you have to borrow a major part of the finances for a building program?
  14. Would paying for the project depend on the church's future growth?
  15. To help pay for the building, would you explore ways to cut spending on your present ministry programs or staffing?

Now, add up your answers. Every yes or maybe is a possible reason not to build, to delay building, or to seek a more appropriate solution through prayer, research, and reevaluation.

Questions 1 through 8 relate to motivations for building. A congregation that has yes or maybe answers here may be in danger of trying to meet nonbuilding needs with a building program. Questions 9 through 11 deal with how best to meet space needs. A congregation with yes or maybe answers here probably doesn't need to build yet, but could grow through making fuller use of existing facilities until future growth makes building truly necessary. Questions 12 through 15 address financial readiness. A congregation with yes or maybe answers here needs to implement plans to pay off debt and save money so that future building will not require borrowing or dipping into funds needed for ministry.

Congregations that follow these guidelines are able to leave behind limiting ways of thinking about, using, and paying for church buildings in favor of approaches that free up most of the time, money, and energy traditionally invested in buildings. These resources can then be redirected to the true mission of the church—ministering to the needs of people in Christ's name.

Adapted from When Not to Build: An Architect's Unconventional Wisdom for the Growing Church, by Ray Bowman with Eddy Hall (Baker Book House, 1992). Ray Bowman, of Larkspur, Colo., is a consultant who helps churches grow through coordinated planning of ministries, finances, and facilities. Eddy Hall is a freelance writer from Goessel, Kan. Used by permission. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2000.

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