Self Storage Jesus

August 12, 2011

I guess all good things must come to an end.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I got a letter from her grandmother, who lives in the rural Midwest.

Among the topics that grandmothers talk about, she mentioned that the town’s Catholic church, her home church had closed.  The whole town had turned out for a big goodbye picnic.  It was sad.

My wife and I can drive across the Midwest, and no matter how rural or isolated the area we are in, every dusty little farm town inevitably has a big old stone or brick Catholic church.  I doubt these tiny communities ever would’ve ever raised the money required to build such churches.  They exist thanks to the Catholic church’s extraordinarily deep pockets.

These churches are also usually less than half full, except maybe Christmas Eve and Easter.  Now this church will soon be emptied of all its furniture.  The pews, altar, confessional booth, statues, pulpit, sacristy, candles, and even poor old Jesus nailed to the cross will be taken away to be put in storage.

And in this situation, my wife and I asked each other, “Why did this church need to close?”  

Whatever the reason, it’s happening all over the country.  And every time a church closes, it sends a message that doesn’t quite seem right.  Here’s the message…

You Need a Building to Have Worship

What message does it send when a big church is built in the middle of nowhere?  That this is where God is.  If you want to worship, you have to come to this building.  He’s not in your fields, yards, homes, or anywhere else.  If there is no big building with a big mortgage to go with it, you can’t properly worship God.

People know in their minds that God is everywhere, and you don’t have to have a church building to worship.  But most don’t believe it in their hearts…not enough to try a house church, or make a house church their exclusive church experience.  There is no reason that the church closing should’ve been “goodbye.”  But no one thought otherwise.  No one in that little farm town is inviting the neighbors over to their house for worship on Sunday.  Now that the church is closed, worship and fellowship go in the storage closet.

You Need a Full Time Pastor / Priest

I suppose one of the reasons the rural church closed is because a full time priest could not be found to live in the parsonage and make a living off the meager offerings the faithful can scrape together.  The message is that if there are not enough people to support a building and a pastor’s salary, then church cannot happen.  God forbid the ten townsfolk meet on Sunday without a priest or pastor, and one of the old farmers reads a passage out of his own Bible, and says a prayer.

I have all the respect in the world for men and women who occupy themselves full time with ministry.  But I am also proud of the fact that I support myself financially, and lot more of us are going to have to get used to having bi-vocational pastors.  If we think having “church” requires a full time pastor, we’re going to see a lot more churches close.

Self Storage Jesus

What happened to that rural church isn’t unique.  It’s happening all over the country.

What happened was that fifty or a hundred years ago, churches were built all over the country that probably couldn’t be sustained by the towns they were in.  Some people came to church out of habit or cozy ritual.  Most people liked having a church in town, even though they slept in on Sundays.  But the day that the church closed, everyone in town showed up.  They hadn’t shown up all those years to actually support the church in a meaningful way.  They kept their faith in a storage building.  Most storage buildings look like garages.  This storage building looked like a church.

Like so many other dusty old belongings people keep, they weren’t willing to throw Jesus away, but they didn’t really want to look at him either…Jesus just sat in storage, taking up space.

And then when the church really was being put in a storage closet, no one felt anything could be done.  I might have thought that surely, a bunch of grown adults who have gone to church their entire lives would be moved by the Spirit to have worship together without a priest or a building…but apparently, I would be wrong.

And that seems to be the fruit of the whole endeavor.  Without the exterior trappings and rituals, most people won’t bother.

What do you think?  If your church closed, and there were no other options, would you invite everyone to your house on Sundays?  Would you be willing to lead worship if your church couldn’t find a pastor?

27 responses to Self Storage Jesus

  1. Hi Matt,

    Good point here.

    If every church building in my hometown, Jacksonville, Florida, locked up today, it would not effect my faith and worship.

    If I were shipwrecked alone on an island, same thing.

    One man and God are a majority.

    However, Jesus did say that where two or three gather in His name, He’s there among them.

    So this puts me in a quandary.

    The few small house churches I’ve seen appear to me as an outsider to be big church wantabes. And, again, as an outsider, it appears to me that many called to be ministers mostly want a pulpit and an income.

    A workman is worthy of his hire. Yet there appear to be an awful lot of professional Christians around.

    Personally, I champion the individual following of Jesus–maybe that’s because I’m a grouch who can’t get along with anybody else.

    I’ve heard it said that Christianity resembles a bicycle wheel with Christ at the hub and His followers as spokes, so that the closer we draw to him, the closer we are to eachother.

    Maybe so.

    However, what if the Lord is also the rim of the wheel, the closer we move toward Him, the more distinctively individual we become.apart from other spokes.

    As an outsider I fear herd mentality that generates a political agenda and fosters pushes toward nonessentials and calls those Christianity.The Lord can manage without His name on dollar bills, or prayer in schools, or any political party. He is not helpless. He can take care of Himself and any human sin or situation.

    Besides, if all churches, large and small, shut down today, maybe the taxes then collectible could bail us all out of the ecconomic crisis.

    Would I invite folks into my home for a gettogather which might include conversation about Christ in our lives? Already do.

    Would I teach Bible without pay? Done that for years on the streets, in rescue missions, and in society churches.

    Would I attend an announced church service? Did that for all too many years; now, I’d rather watch football on tv.

    However, bearing all I’ve just said in mind, I’m probably the most piss poor example of Christian anywhere, one of those skin-of-my-teeth believers. If Heaven has a back row, I’ll be one of the guys standing behind it.

    Your blog postings always make me think.


    John Cowart

  2. Goodness gracious – this was a fantastic post. One of the most creative, and yet truthful writings I’ve read recently. Keep up the great work!

  3. What do you think? If your church closed, and there were no other options, would you invite everyone to your house on Sundays?

    Good question. First, I am the church. Wherever I am with another Christian, I can have church. I do not live by the notion that church needs to have any specific set of rituals or amenities. IE: Worship, a message, prayer, buildings, pastors or anything else. If we are led by the Spirit, we’ll move from one divine-encounter to another. I also don’t believe any of those things are bad – well as long as it’s God and not just some good idea.

    Tomorrow I am having church at the rod and gun club with Steve a few close friends in the Glock family. There will be prayer, excitement and fellowship!

    Would you be willing to lead worship if your church couldn’t find a pastor?

    Of course. As an ambassador for the Kingdom, once I tap into what God is doing, I will be just fine. If I decide how God is going to do things, or try to lay some religious set of rituals down, I will likely fail. I’d be more interested to raise someone up to do the job. This comes through relationship and the recognition of God’s gifting in others.

    To make my point, I went to a Kids conference and one of the best messages for the weekend was a 7-year-old that preached on maturing. Ha! The some pre-teens prayed for healing and a woman who had been very ill, became well. I loved it!

  4. First, I think Jesus is all FOR closing churches. Read Revelation and how He threatened to close most of the 7 churches mentioned in the first chapters.
    Second, the old revival preacher story: He placed a casket in front of the church and said to come and look in it and you would see who killed the church. When the people lined up to look they saw a mirror and an image of themselves.
    Third, the advent of the building took something away from the church gathering that we have never recovered. Blow up the building!
    Fourth, Yes, use my home, my talents, use me to continue the church. I believe.

  5. The Catholic Church is a church of Sacraments, and the reserved Sacrament is kept in a Tabernacle in the main body of the church. As a sacramental church we cannot exist without the priests. There is a shortage of priests because who in their right mind now would take on becoming a priest when a relatively small number of priests abused children and it was covered, smeared the millions of good priests who never touched a single person.

    Catholic Churches also have a relic of a saint in the altar itself, that has to be removed. The closing of parishes is sad, but all things change. American’s love to say how much they believe, but then why aren’t more in all the churches attending church?

    Be careful where you cast your stones or start blowing up buildings, kindly recall that were it not for the Catholic Church and the early Church Councils, you would not have the Bible as it exists, nor the Virgin Birth of Jesus, now would you have a Trinity. All there was before the Reformation was the Catholic and Orthodox Churches of the East. All cherished and basic Christian doctrines relating to God and to Jesus were put together by Catholics long before you began living by Sola Scriptura.

    As for Revelation that was written against the Roman Empire. Has no one here read Church History?

    • I had hoped you’d comment, Steve, because I want to make clear that I’m not trying to pick on the Catholic church. This church happened to be Catholic, but it happens with all kinds of churches. I’d have written the same post if the church were Lutheran or Baptist. I think this situation might be happening more with Catholic churches in particular in my part of the country because of the great resources the Catholic church had to build more churches than any denomination.

    • Respectfully, the Catholic church was a middle stage, not the beginning. The early church was just the believers, meeting in homes, synagogues, the Temple, riversides…wherever they were welcomed. A lot of them simply gathered in people’s homes and broke bread together. The Roman Catholic church as a separate and recognized entity did not really come into existence until much later. We do indeed owe Catholicism a debt of gratitude for preservation of many texts that might otherwise have been destroyed without the care and concern of monks and priests. And we should note that most early Protestant leaders did not want to leave Catholicism but to reform it to return to a full Biblical basis. It’s why it was called the Reformation. Most of them only left the Catholic church when they felt forced to choose between Hierarchy and Scripture.

      As a Protestant, I stand against a number of Catholic beliefs I find to be in conflict with Scripture. But I firmly believe there are many Christians in the Catholic church. Like every Protestant denomination, there are within it believers who are in error on certain points, and others who do not know Christ but merely attend a familiar organization. And I think we also need to acknowledge that the Catholic church has abandoned some of its old errors over time, particularly under the influence of John Paul III, whom I greatly respected. It remains to be seen what the Catholic church will be in the end, and which direction successive leaders will take it.

    • “The Catholic Church is a church of Sacraments, and the reserved Sacrament is kept in a Tabernacle in the main body of the church.”
      Thank you, Steve. You expIanation in that sentence was more succinct than I could have been. I was away on Friday (ironically, at a Workshop on teaching the Creed to become a certified Catechist), and did not read this until Sunday. I’m glad you stated the importance of the Tabernacle for us. It is Jesus’s presence in the Sacrament of the Eucharist and His place in the Tabernacle that makes the Church more than just a building for us Catholics.

  6. I know that Matt. I just want people to understand that the Catholic Church cannot just up and stop using buildings. It is not the way we are set up. Our entire communal life is built around the parish, and the schools. Also, I should point out that our conversion to Catholicism are up.

  7. I love house churches and I love churches that meet in buildings. The key to either seems to be is the gospel of Jesus the center or are we doing something else. The house church I was in for 6 years drifted into something else and Jesus fired it.

    The church building our church now meets in was built in the 1800’s and used to be thriving baptist church. It had slowly died due to lack of gospel clarity with only a few older people left they gave it away to a new church plant. The gospel is the center again and golly people are there again. So the old building is being used again instead of being empty and it is much prettier than those ugly new things being built!!

  8. If my church closed down, I would definitly invite peeps to my house. I probably wouldn’t do a good job cause I would want to knick pick who comes! LOL…lets face it…we all have some people we would not want to go to church with…but that’s another topic…

    It’s kinda one of those things my grandma used to say…Bring me flowers will I’m alive….not when I’m dead in a coffin and i can’t smell of touch them….that’s stupid!…

    Same thing…support and show up to your church….not when it’s about to closed it’s doors forever.

  9. Matt, as a Catholic and mostly lurker here, I enjoy reading your take on Christian life, partly because of your vastly different approach to living it (although a lot of it also has to do with the fact that you’re a pretty funny guy and a good writer). Your post here raises some interesting points to ponder, but I think in your attempt to sell people on the house church approach, you might not be giving us building-dwellers enough credit.

    Let me start this way: I think you’re mostly right about church buildings. They are churches, not The Church, and often people mistake then as such. I’m currently living in New England, and there have been a number of church closings in my diocese, though the reason is not that the church overbuilt, but that the number of Catholics (and people in general) has decreased greatly since since the industrial boom of the 1900s. Every time a church is closed, the local media is full of quotes from church members about how unfair the bishop is, about how their great-uncle once removed helped build the church, etc. And every time, I want to give them a good shake and say “It’s just a building! There’s still an open church a half a mile away [not an exaggeration in some cases] — you know, the place you go to Mass on Saturday when you want to hit the lake on Sunday morning — and I promise they will still have the same Jesus, the same Mass, and the same kind of community you had!” I think the vast majority of people realize that their church building is just that. In fact, I’m friends with a priest who was put in charge of one of these new “merged” parishes, and despite having a few vocal groups trying to cling to their old things, the community has come together quite well, and has shown their support by being very generous in the collection tray. The other takeaway here is that the Catholic Church is not abandoning anyone; they are very judicious in making sure that people affected by church closings aren’t stuck without another church to attend. Sure, they may have to drive to the next town over, but if they can’t be bothered to do that, then they weren’t going to church for the right reasons (i.e. worship & prayer) in the first place.

    Of course, this is all looking past the point you were making, which is that you shouldn’t NEED a building at all. And actually, I’m with you here, too, at least to a certain extent. Despite taking almost opposite approaches as to scale and structure, the Catholic church and house churches both seem to share a sacramental outlook — here I’m using the term “sacramental a little differently than Steve did. Basically, what I mean is that we both believe in celebrating God in the ordinary trappings of everyday life: the taste of a good meal, the drudgery of your job, the tiny miracle that is a perfect summer evening, etc. An example: when I was in college, one of the priests at the catholic center would often carry around his prayer book and a small supply of communion, so that he could celebrate Mass at the drop of a hat, should the opportunity present itself. One of these times was on a choir trip to Europe, in the middle of hiking around a lake in the Austrian Alps. It was a perfect day, so we (about 20 of us) had a Mass in celebration. Even if the priest hadn’t been there, I’m sure someone would have stepped forward to offer a prayer. I guess that was your other point too. The priests do an amazing service to their worship communities, but there’s just no way that they can be involved in the everyday lives of everyone who needs it. So when you mention things like “ten townsfolk meet on Sunday without a priest or pastor, and one of the old farmers reads a passage out of his own Bible, and says a prayer” … this sort of thing happens. Within the larger church community are dozens of smaller organizations or just groups of friends who get together to share a meal, a prayer, a movie, do a bible study, sign, have a book club, etc. Some of these are “official” (meaning they get a spot in the bulletin) and some are not.

    Lastly, I wanted to turn the tables and ask you a question: Do you have a room or other place you have set aside just for worship? Or do you have somewhere “away from it all” you regularly (or at least sporadically) go to pray and contemplate? If so, then I think you can grasp why having a special building for worship makes sense to so many people.

  10. Considering that my church is pretty small and unassuming as it is, I don’t think it would be a big deal if we had to close its doors and meet elsewhere. I like the idea of a house church, and I’d totally attend one if I knew that there was a man (not necessarily a pastor, but that wouldn’t hurt) truly called by God to pastor it (and not just someone who was trying to dissent).

    My current pastor has had no formal training. He is a simple, prayerful man who shepherds his sheep, expecting fruit to be produced. I believe that if our church closed, he would continue to lead us whether it be in a living room, a park or a storage shed. 80)

  11. Most of my church experience has been meeting in schools and abandoned movie theaters as we started from a small group of believers to a bigger group of believers, all the while, meeting in homes during the week. On Sundays, meeting in the high school was a pain when it came to set up and the theater was a little dismal, in spite of our best efforts. However, it was the first place where I felt like I had a family. We finally did get a church building, which we bought second hand from a Baptist church moving onto new and better surroundings and then spent some money fixing it up to get rid of the lovely 70’s brown decor and made it a beautiful place to worship. And yet, after a year, spiritually speaking, all hell broke loose. Attendence stagnated and small groups were floundering because everyone considered the building to be church.

    When we moved to AZ, we tried looking for smaller churches, but we had difficulty finding ones that seemed to fit. So we started attending a mega church that had small community groups meeting in people’s homes during the week. Now we have shifted to attending a small, bi-lingual church plant initiated by the mega church near our house and will be forming a new small community group. And the focus is to DO life together, not just meet on Sundays in the bigger church. And once again, it feels like a church family and not just doing church, even though, in many “worldly” respects, I have very little in common with any one. And I praise God that He is showing me a tiny bit of what heaven will be like.

    So building are NOT necessarily what is needed for church. China proves it. All the secret churches in the Middle East and other Muslim dominated countries prove it. People who love Jesus and are committed to follow him meeting together in prayer, encouragement and worship of the Living God are what is needed.

    “Let us consider how we may spur one another one to love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–and all the more as the Day approaches.” Hebrews 10:24-25

  12. While you may not need a large building with a huge mortgage and electric bill, you do need a space to worship. I’m having a hard time imagining the people of that church worshiping outside in the weather in that picture.

    Someone has to pay for the mortgage of the house you meet in right?

    And while you don’t need a full-time pastor, you need some kind of competent leadership.

    You have received formal training from somewhere right?

    The space you use is just smaller and less formal. And your pastor-ship is just less full time. (however, Yours is probably a more sustainable model.)

    • Great point. Leadership is key. Obviously, there is not leadership in this particular church, outside of the priest, which is exactly my point. If anyone at all had been invested in to develop any leadership, someone would’ve spoken up and said, “It doesn’t have to be this way!” And someone is paying the mortgage of the house we use, true. This isn’t about what ALL churches should do. It’s about opening churches to more possibilities when their backs are against the walls and buildings and mortgages and pastors are no longer options. It’s like what TandemingTroll said above. China proves what can happen when the trappings we consider “necessary” are not available. Worship happens anyway.

  13. House church sounds good. Church buildings are okay too (some of them have awesome acoustics for congregational singing!). I feel like some of us “do church” right here on the internet. Right up until my Mom passed away, we did church right there in her room at the nursing home. A friend brought communion to serve. We sang. We read the Bible. We fellowshipped. We had a few deep theological discussions. It was good. I like routine, so having a building where we can gather at appointed times works well for me. But learning to “do church” in multiple settings at various times has been good for me. I know that when Jesus comes to get me, I’m not going to say, “Wait! Can we take our building with us?”

  14. Great post, as a paid minister at a church that owns a building, I still completely agree with you. The one thing that frustrates me the most is when people freak out over a church closing it’s doors. Churches dying isn’t the worst part, the worst part is that new churches aren’t starting fast enough. The post is excellent, but I think another thing that should be included in our list is that when churches close it proves that we aren’t starting new ones to replace them.

  15. I think you’re missing something here, Matt. A family needs a place to call home. A family can certainly function without that, but it becomes much more difficult for that family to thrive.

    Your argument presumes that the “Mother Church” dotted the nation’s landscape with buildings that never were really the center of life for a church family or for the community that church was a part of. I don’t think that presumption could be further from the truth. Communities used to be–and a few still are (especially rural, predominantly Catholic communities)–built around the life and activity of the church. Perhaps that seems a bit stone age to a 21st century web wizard, but it’s true! These buildings may now be relics of a passing era, but when built, they served not only as places of worship for a congregation, but as evidence of the life of Christ in a community, and as a point of connection for the community as a whole. In that sense, even these buildings became a tool for evangelism.

    Is it true that no building is required? Yep. Can a family be faulted for building a home? Not in my book. Is the “congregational model”–complete with ever expanding buildings and full-time staff–sustainable in the 21st century? Probably not. But like David, perhaps they’ve served God’s purpose in their own generation (Acts 13:36). That wouldn’t be a bad thing, now would it?

    I always enjoy your blog. No, really–it’s true!

    • You are right in a lot of ways. The anecdotal evidence I supplied was that on the day the church closed, a bunch of people showed up who normally did not support the church in a real way. Nothing wrong with buildings or anything. What saddens me is that the community didn’t adapt its worship to the changes that took place. Nothing wrong with having a church, except that it’s inconceivable to anyone in town that worship could happen without it. The work of the Church is done away with in that town because one church had to close because it could not adapt.

  16. August 13, 2011 at 2:23 am

    I recently read the book Pagan Christianity, and had my eyes opened and thinking changed about the church in terms of where and why and how the current state of traditional church came to be. I have looked for a house church in my area….the nearest one, according to the all-powerful internets, is hours away. I sporadically attend my brother’s church, and what I love most about it is that I am worshipping with my bro and his family. Finding, cultivating and keeping a church family is what I have found most difficult regardless of where and how it is housed.

  17. Spot on post here Matt. And you are right that this is going to get worse. So many churches are closing because they are defaulting with banks. This is happening in places WITH good attendance as well. I blame a lot of it with the old keeping up wit the mega churches disease. To be honest I do not think it is even a Biblical model for doing church anyway.