As readers of my blog will know, I’ve been pastor at Girdwood Chapel for 10 years so far and much of that time has been spent working towards constructing a new church facility.
This new building was a dream of the congregation’s before I got here. They’d been planning for a new building since even before their last pastor, their first full-time pastor, showed up in 1996. After I got here they’d already pushed back plans to begin construction twice, each time having to turn away work teams from the lower-48 that were very eager to help with the construction. The congregation had been planning to build with the good folk of the local Catholic congregation on some property together, but kept getting delayed as they worked on issues with the property.
These are good questions. And I’m not really sure how to answer them for the time before I was here as a pastor. My guess is that a lot of the construction talk was, perhaps, a little premature. However, even though they only had about 35 in attendance, they shared the small 30-foot by 30-foot building with the local Catholic congregation, effectively doubling the size of the congregation that was worshipping in that very tiny (some call it “quaint”) building. Plus, I think we need to understand that the present focus on “house churches” wasn’t quite as strong.
We looked around at other options in the community–the school, rental property–but couldn’t find anything. The monthly rents seemed just too high for what we’d be getting out of the deal. There was no “community center” (as there is now) and there was no “Our Lady of the Snows Catholic Church” building (as there is now). We didn’t seem to have any options. And so, we started planning for a new facility and, probably 8 years after that time, we’re still trying to get into the new space.
I feel, in a way, that I have to make excuses for why we’re building a new facility. I know that the amount of time we’ve been taking on this construction has worn down, emotionally and energy-wise, our congregation. And I know that we’re going to be dealing with the debt to pay it off for some time. And, furthermore, I know that a lot of new ministries and churches are finding that they really don’t need “brick and mortar” buildings to engage in ministries and build relationships. And, perhaps, if we’d been a brand-spanking new ministry, we would have found that we could have evolved on a more “house church” model. But we were a church that had been around for 50 years…now 60…and already had identified with a church facility. That facility was just too small for it. And, after all, we knew that the building was not an end in and of itself but was a “tool” — a tool to build and foster community and a place from which to send people out in ministry in the world. I think we’ve been clear about that all along.
I recently received some help in my reflection on this on buildings and ministries through an interview with N.T. Wright in “Faith and Leadership” called “N.T. Wright: Working on a Building.”
Although he was Bishop of Durham in the Church of England for seven years, N.T. Wright doesn’t think about the church in terms of institutions. He thinks in terms of community.
“The institution is like the scaffolding that you need to be working on the building,” Wright said. “The scaffolding isn’t the reality.”
The General Synod, the Church of England’s legislative body, for example, is basically like plumbing, Wright said: “When you go into a friend’s house, you don’t expect to see the plumbing, but you need to know that it’s working, because if it’s not, fairly soon there’ll be a bad smell in the house.”
That is, the church’s institutions have to work well, or things can go wrong. People can get hurt, Wright said. Church leaders may sometimes feel like they’re working on scaffolding all day rather than living in the house, but “somebody has got to do that stuff so that the mission of the church can go forward.”
What we are building is part of the institution. We’re building a structure, a part of the institutional church. And it’s a beautiful part of it. Thanks be to God, we’re going to have a beautiful facility–the walls, the roof-line, the office space, and, (thank you, Jesus!) the bathrooms. But that structure is there merely to shape the underlying reality which is a church body that is growing closer to God and each other in community.
That building we’re building, that debt we’re taking on, all of the energy that we’re putting forward…well…it’s all so the mission of the church can go forward. We’re not building a building, even though it may look that way. We’re supporting and expanding a ministry. We’re not constructing walls. We’re building a place to construct disciples. And while I do hope, unlike Wright’s metaphor for the institutional church, that people “see” our plumbing and the heavy timbers in the sanctuary and our beautiful front entrance, I hope what they come here for is the life of community that springs up from this place.