By Mac Deaver
Recently I listened to a man preaching a sermon in one of our better church buildings in Texas. And though he expressed gratitude for our buildings, he instructed us that we needed to get away from the idea of church building evangelism. I noticed later an article that had been published in one of our brotherhood publications, again decrying the emphasis that the author thought we had placed on our buildings. I would like to counter what I have heard and read with a few brief thoughts.
Usually those who find fault with us over our buildings are quick to point out that they are not opposed to the buildings as such, but to a wrong attitude that has developed about them. While that criticism may have application to a few brethren, I seriously doubt that it is widespread. I find no widespread criticism among us of our own private houses on the basis of a supposed misevaluation. Then, why are we in worship services or in periodicals at times subjected to criticism of an alleged wrong idea about or an overestimation of our buildings? All of us surely know that the church is not the building, but what can we constructively say about the building?
I am very grateful for our humble yet sufficient building in which our brethren in Sheffield meet and in which I regularly attempt to preach. It is not the largest building in which I have preached. It is not the most expensive building in which I have preached, but it is so very adequate to meet the current needs of our people. It is a very fine building suitable to the purposes of a wonderful country church in a remote part of Texas. Also, I am glad that our brethren have access to facilities that allow us to eat together every Lord’s day in between our services. The building provides a wonderful opportunity for edification through association during the noon hour.
And yet I have been aware for years of this criticism of an alleged overemphasis on the value of the church building. The criticism is not new. But it is an inaccurate criticism. Let me offer a few points in response to this misguided emphasis or misunderstood estimation of the building that some preachers continue to make.
First, we do, after all, need a place to assemble. While Hebrews 10:25 does not specify the place, it necessitates the place. A building is simply one of several options allowable by Bible authority. I’ll have to admit that in my younger preaching days, I somewhat romanticized the concept of worship in houses. After all, the early church often did that (Philemon 3). And for a while I did preach for a small group of brethren who at the time met regularly in a couple’s house. But usually, the demands are such that worship in a house is not practical very long for most congregations. At any rate, we simply make the point here that a particular building is certainly authorized and, in most cases, becomes the optimal choice for congregations of the Lord’s people. A special building in which the local brethren can gather becomes an expedient in our culture in most situations.
Second, it is good to have buildings that signify or indicate religious interest. In our culture, people usually see the difference between buildings used for secular purposes and those used for religious purposes. The community may not know the difference between the church of the Lord and the many churches of the world, but it can tell, because of the building and usually because of a sign, the difference between a building for religious purposes and a place of business. It is not hard to tell the difference between the mall as constructed and church buildings, and it certainly is easy to see the difference between the church of Christ and J. C. Penney. Remember, that the growth of the first century church utilized the concept of a synagogue, a building for religious purposes. If there was a synagogue in a town, that is where Paul usually went first to preach (Acts 13:5). And if there were no synagogue, he looked for a place known for regular religious activity (Acts 16:13).
Third, regular worship of the saints is primarily for the saints anyway. Brethren certainly have the right to offer special services for sinners where sinners can be taught. In the history of the churches of Christ in the United States, this used to be the emphasis during our gospel meetings. When the culture was yet interested in learning more Bible and was willing to sit and listen with sincere interest in the gospel, we appealed to them in our gospel meetings in these services. And, of course, even in our regular weekly services, when we realize that sinners are present, we preachers usually make an extra effort in our lessons to inform them of basic duty or to stimulate them into further study. But the basic purpose of regular worship is for saints since saints are the only people on earth who can worship God acceptably (John 4:24). The basic purpose of our services in our buildings is not evangelism. It remains edification (Heb. 10:25). It was certainly possible for a sinner to come into a special service of the saints for the expression of their miraculous gifts (1 Cor. 14:24-25), but that service was for the saints themselves, as are our regular worship services.
Fourth, there is no such thing, Scripturally speaking, as guilt-driven worship or guilt-driven evangelism. How often have you, dear reader, heard the preacher unintentionally undermining the significance of worship by suggesting that the more important Christian effort was yet to be made after the brethren left the building? Surely not all preachers have done this, but many have left the definite and lasting impression with their congregations that the worship itself was simply an essential preface to the greater expenditure of effort which was to characterize the brethren following their departure from the building. And I, right here, declare without fear of successful contradiction, that such an idea is preposterous! Now, no one will explicitly say that worship is unimportant any more than he will say that we don’t need our buildings, but when he gets through explaining what he thinks is the “real business” of the church, it amounts to the contention that the real work of the church goes on outside the building and that the “outside the building effort” is of much greater importance than what can possibly go on inside the building. But I ask, how can anyone who regularly studies both Old and New Testaments believe such a thing (cf. Amos 5:21-27; Lev.10:1-2; Mal.1:6-14; John 4:24; Heb. 10:25; Acts 20:7-11)? Any evangelism that a Christian performs is normal Spirit-driven evangelism, the outgrowth of Spirit-development within the heart of the saint (Rom. 5:5; Gal. 5:22-24; Matt. 22:37-40). If we want to have a Scriptural view of evangelism as a brotherhood, then we are going to have to correct some falsehoods that some of us have been telling to others of us for years about the non-involvement of the Holy Spirit in the everyday life of the saint.
We cannot have successful evangelism by individual or congregation that coerced evangelism. Coercion has been attempted and, sadly, our history now records the fact that, a few years ago, the coercion reached new intensity and some of us became a cult! It is not Scriptural whether you are a Mormon or a Jehovah’s Witness or a Christian to set up a situation such that a person is more or less forced or intimidated into doing what is deemed “evangelistic” work. Furthermore, there is no more authority for “nuisance evangelism” than there is for “guilt-driven evangelism” or “coerced evangelism.” If there are things that false religionists do to you that you do not like in their misguided efforts at evangelistic activity, then why in the world would you attempt to do the same thing to them? The “golden rule” applies to evangelism as well as to anything else that we as brethren might try to do (Matt.7:12).
Our evangelistic efforts, Scripturally speaking, are the result of our love, and not the result of our guilt over the condition of the lost (cf. Rom. 13:8-10). We didn’t lose the lost; we didn’t cause the lost to be lost, and yet so much of the preaching on evangelism that I have heard over a lifetime of worship has almost totally left the impression with me that the preacher is placing the bulk of the responsibility for the sinner’s retrieval, if there is to be one, at the feet of the church rather than at the feet of the world where it belongs! Rather than putting the blame on the world, the church is usually accused. This has absolutely destroyed so much of “the peace that passeth all understanding” because we preachers did not speak knowingly of the responsibility of all parties involved: (1) God, (2) saint, and (3) sinner. Even under the Great Commission when it was clearly operative, Paul told two Gentile audiences that the prior obligation with regard to their finding God was theirs (Acts 14:14-18; 17:22-31)! It is my personal judgment that many of us preachers have over a lifetime of preaching unintentionally made it absolutely impossible for our local congregations to have any peace within because we constantly made the brethren feel guilty about those who had not as yet obeyed the gospel, most of whom never would anyway! Am I wrong? While knowing that the world could not have optimal peace (John 16:33), without meaning to, we preachers have made it almost impossible for that peace to exist within the heart of good and faithful brethren (Phil. 4:4-7).
Fifth, I would venture to say that most people who criticize American Christians for our alleged wrong view of our buildings, operate from an unbalanced view of the mission of the church. Usually, their concept is that the main or primary or most fundamental or maybe the sole mission of the church is to “reach the lost.” But such is simply not so! There is absolutely no Scriptural evidence to support such a contention. The whole mission of the church is to save souls, including those who have already been saved, as well as those who may yet be reached. The church is authorized to edify itself (Heb. 10:25; Jude 20-21), engage in benevolence (Jas. 1:27; Gal. 6:10), and try to influence the lost to their salvation (Matt. 5:13-16). The emphasis in the New Testament is nowhere placed on evangelistic effort as somehow more important than edification or benevolence. If there is a passage that so presents evangelism as the main focus of the church, what is it? I understand that our concept of evangelism in the past was derived from our wrong view of the Great Commission. That was fulfilled (Col. 1:23)! Our evangelism cannot be based on that assignment given only to the apostles and which they alone could fulfill.
Sixth, people have a way of finding our church buildings when they need help in physical matters. Have you ever noticed that? We are easily located by sinners when they need something in a financial way. I once preached where a certain non-Christian made use of the church to provide her taxi service. She knew where we were, she knew we were compassionate, she knew she was in need of transportation, and she knew of our expressed interest in her. And she was not reluctant at all to call on us for physical help! Of course, she showed absolutely no concern for the gospel, but she knew where we were.
Just how hard is it for anyone today in America to locate us? Even in areas where our people are sparse, because of public communication (including TV, radio, and the internet), just how hard is it for a sinner to locate a saint? Sinners know they have to go somewhere to get what they need. If they want food, they go to the store. If they want medical care, they have to go where it is. They understand all too well that the obligation rests personally upon them to make contact with those who have what they need. But because of our misconception of our relationship to a commission given once (and once only) to the apostles (and to the apostles only), we now have created the fiction that (1) it is more or less all right for the world to remain passive while (2) the basic and major effort in behalf of their souls is an effort given to the church! The world is viewed as composed of passive victims, and the church has the main responsibility for their salvation. This, I contend, is without Scriptural warrant!
In the church we have told ourselves for years and years that we have to go, and we have never, never stressed the God-given assignment to sinners to look for truth (Luke 11:13 cf. Matt. 7:7-12; Acts 17:27)! I have heard in my lifetime almost nothing about the responsibility of the sinner for himself from preachers in our worship services! And yet we all know that each person will give account for himself (2 Cor. 5:10). Somehow, when we discuss the work of the church, we lose our balance when considering what we must do regarding the sinner. Should we feel concern for sinners? Of course. Do we have any obligation to sinners? Certainly. But God knows how to get a searching sinner in contact with his sacred word, a local congregation, an individual Christian, a book, a TV broadcast, etc. Do you doubt it? We have seriously failed to comprehend what the Bible teaches about God’s overall divine management of the whole situation providentially, in spite of the fact that we have known for years that God controlled the total situation involving getting the gospel to all the Jews and Gentiles of the first century (Rom. 11:33-36). God still controls these matters. Do you doubt it? Every accountable being on earth is in God’s image! Doesn’t that image carry with it personal responsibility for the man to find his Maker? You know the answer!
Seventh, our buildings provide a way for us to find our other brethren in other areas. Just like having a book that lists where our brethren are located, our buildings and signs inform us as we travel that our brethren meet in a certain place. Of course, unlike it used to be, we do not now in America always know what we are going to find in some services within those buildings because of innovations that have corrupted the worship of some congregations. But, at least the buildings and signs provide us with some information relative to our brethren in other places, whether the meeting houses are being used rightly or not.
I have, just like you, spent a good portion of time in some of our buildings. And a few buildings have a special place in my heart because of experiences that have been mine within them. Our work and worship would be shackled, indeed, in this country as well as others, without them. I am grateful to God that in his most gracious providence, he has enabled us to have these structures appropriate to our needs. May they always be used by us to his glory and to our good and to that of our fellow man.