There is a scene in the movie Almost Famous where the band Stillwater leaves their tour bus behind and boards an airplane. The rationale for ditching the bus is that the plane gives the band a greater sense of legitimacy and they can increase the number of shows they play on a tour. In the scene, as the band and entourage walk away from the bus and toward the airplane, the young journalist William Miller looks back at the bus in earnest, a hint of sorrow on his face. They don’t seem to simply be trading one mode of transportation for another; they are losing a part of themselves. In artistic terms, they are “selling out.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about that scene lately.
For the past few months, Collective Church—the church where I pastor—has been preparing for a similar transition. Ever since the church was created in early 2014, our home has been the conference center inside the Marriott hotel near Texas Motor Speedway. But now we are only a few days away from moving out of the hotel and into our own space in downtown Roanoke, Texas.
We began at the Marriott for one simple reason: We had no place else to go. However, it did not take long for the Marriott to stop feeling like a “last option” and to start feeling like home. We made friends with some of the staff members, we developed a rhythm with the building, and we (or at least I) really looked forward to seeing who else might be in the hotel on any given weekend—a Corvette show, a medical convention, a conference dedicated to the care and keeping of competition rodeo horses (yes, that was one of them), etc. My Instagram feed is full of pictures of some of the more interesting neighbors we have had over the past sixteen months.
And now we say goodbye to the hotel and plant our flag on an old office building on Oak Street in Roanoke. We look back at the tour bus as we board the airplane.
I have only worked for two other churches during my fifteen years of working in ministry, and both of those churches engaged in their own respective major building campaigns during my time at each of them. And as I participated in two different churches’ approach to building and moving, I learned one thing that is probably obvious to anyone reading this post: Moving into a new space is a really big deal.
Churches—pastors, staff, volunteers, casual attenders—place a lot of hope in the power of a new building. I have heard pastors tell their staff (with no irony whatsoever), “If we build it, they will come” (“they, of course, being lots of people). The New Church Building is often viewed as the silver bullet—the one unstoppable force that will vault the church into the next level, whatever that might be.
To be fair, lots of churches do grow when they move into a new or larger space. There are certainly a lot of advantages to settling into a new home. I mean, I can’t really critique this whole thing too much, considering the transition that my church is preparing to make. I’m not criticizing the need or the excitement attached to moving into a new space; I’m simply wondering if we have asked too much of our buildings—if we want them to be something that they cannot ultimately be.
In the name of full disclosure, I should tell you that this post is really more about me than it is about any other pastor or church. I have been mulling over what it means to move into a new church ever since I signed our lease back in February. So here’s what I want to do: I want to really consider what a building is, and in turn, what a building is not.
Let’s start with what a church building is not:
1. A new building is NOT a guarantee of numerical/financial growth
Like I said, lots of pastors view the building as a guarantee for growth, and sometimes that certainly happens. However, it is also possible that you will see almost no growth at all, OR you will receive a few new families, but you may also lose a few families because the church no longer feels like it did in the “good old days.”
I’m not saying we shouldn’t hope for growth when we move into a building; what I am saying is that we should not move solely for the purpose of getting more people or more money. I’ve seen pastors go into deep depression because they bet all of their chips on the hope that they would triple in size when they moved, and their weekly attendance numbers barely flinched. They gambled a lot of money (and quite often borrowed a lot of money) with the belief that the building would yield massive returns, and it hasn’t worked that way.
2. A new building is NOT a solution to all your problems
A new building can certainly solve some problems, but it will create just as many (if not more) problems. The time we spent loading and unloading our stuff into a hotel conference space will now be spent cleaning bathrooms, changing air conditioner filters, and picking up trash in the parking lot. The money we paid for storage will now be spent on utilities.
Also, people are still people, and random problems will always come up. When a pastor says, “Let’s just wait until we get into the new building, and this problem will take care of itself,” nine times out of ten, that pastor is kidding himself (or herself).
So here’s what I think a new building is...
1. A new building is an opportunity to join an existing community
Our church is moving into a specific neighborhood—Downtown Roanoke, Texas. This means that we should start asking ourselves how we can participate in the community—how we can contribute to the well being of our neighbors. If we act as if we are an island unto ourselves or the most important people on the block, we will miss one of the major reasons why any church should be part of a community at all.
2. A new building is an opportunity to be a host and not just a guest
For the past 16 months, we have been a church that moves around a lot. We’ve mostly been in the hotel, but we have also held services in school cafeterias and HOA clubhouses. As such, our function has largely been as takers rather than givers. We are always in transit, and we depend on the kindness of our hosts (which has been abundant nearly every week).
When we have our own space, we can begin serving new functions and asking new questions. How can we provide space for the people in our community? How can we invite people to sit with us at the table? How can we open our doors and invite people to find some kind of rest or peace within our walls?
So yeah, I feel a lot like William Miller looking back at the old tour bus, hoping that this move doesn’t cost us part of ourselves.
I’m hopeful that this new building will help us spend more time building community with one another instead of spending so much time packing and unpacking boxes, wondering where we could possibly get all these people together for a meal.
We may grow, but we may not. Call me a terrible pastor, but that doesn’t really feel like the point of all of this. The point is that we should be looking for a place to feel safe and at home. If the Collective Church stops feeling like Collective Church—if we gain a building and lose our soul—we should have just stayed at the hotel. But if we can provide hope and joy and peace and safety—if we can be good neighbors and serve people food and offer opportunities for people to join the conversation—then I will feel pretty good about boarding this proverbial airplane.
*Note: If you want to know when our first services in the new building will be, stay tuned. I will post here as soon as we are ready to go.
*Another note: I'm sure there are lots of great insights that could have been included here that I did not think of. I've never pastored a church that was moving into a new building, and I know that I have a lot to learn. So it's totally possible that a year from now I could write a post called "All the things I didn't know when I wrote that post about the building," or something like that. Feel free to comment and tell me what I may have overlooked here.