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The tension between “bricks and mortar” and “mission and ministry”


The tension between “bricks and mortar” and “mission and ministry” is never easy to navigate. Facilities seem so real and practical, while mission and ministry tend to be ambiguous and unmeasurable.

The tension gets especially complicated when facilities are enshrined as “historic.” Some constituents derive personal status from things historic, whether or not it is deserved, and the old implies a certain continuity that many desire.

The tension between buildings and servanthood often boils over when constituents are hoping that their facilities can do their mission and ministry so that they themselves don’t have to do it. Renting space to a 12-Step group is labeled a big plus in mission, and all anyone has to do is cash AA’s rent check.

If facilities actually could do ministry, they would do far more than congregational leaders typically allow. In addition to renting space to 12-step groups – yes, AA et al always pay rent – they would provide shelters for women being abused by drunk men. They would offer respite to children whose home lives are out of control. They would offer recovery ministries, to bolster the 11th Step: “We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God.”

In addition to giving away canned goods to needy clients once a week or once a month, they would serve hot lunches to the homeless every day. Kitchens that sit quiet all week would bustle with the noise of food being prepared for Meals on Wheels taken out seven days a week.

Classrooms that are used two hours a week on Sunday would be additionally purposed as weekday preschools for at-risk children and as adult day care and caregiver respite. Halls and parlors would be additionally purposed as small-business incubators. Meeting rooms would be additionally purposed as free medical and dental clinics.

If major fund-raising were possible, churches would take some of their acreage and construct affordable housing for seniors. Church members would embrace their new neighbors and thereby address an “epidemic of loneliness,” as The Times called it, among seniors.

Newly paved parking lots would fill with cars seven days a week, not just Sunday morning. Handsome lawns would be turned into athletic facilities to support youth programs. Also into community gardens where apartment dwellers could join the “farm-to-table” movement.

Facilities don’t do ministry, of course. People do ministry. Bricks and mortar just sit there, week after week, unless an entrepreneurial leader stirs the congregation to active engagement with needs outside their doors. The difference is the entrepreneurial leader and those people who are willing to follow, not the facilities themselves. If the leader won’t challenge people to engage in active, outward-facing ministry, it doesn’t matter what happens to the facilities. If people won’t rise to the challenge, tidying up the space and fixing gaps like inadequate offices and a below-code kitchen won’t accomplish much. Inward-facing must give way to outward-facing. Self-serving must give way to other-serving.

For many, of course, inward-facing is all they want. They want to worship occasionally, give enough to keep the doors open, and derive some satisfaction from strained-glass windows, a fine pipe organ, well-polished wood, and historic provenance. They don’t want this flow disrupted. The problem, we now realize, is that inward-facing is self-defeating. Unless the congregation is serving the larger community and giving itself away boldly in mission and ministry, it will cease to matter to anyone beyond the dwindling few.

Many church members ask, How can we improve our facilities to make them serve our needs better? The far better question to ask is, What does our larger community need from us? What mission and ministry are we called to carry out? What do we need for that enterprise?

The answer might include some enhancement of bricks and mortar. But that is never the place to start. If facilities drive the church, its future is dim.

About the Author

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the publisher of A Fresh Day online magazine, author of On a Journey and two national newspaper columns.


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