Culture Institutions

Why Christians should ditch monuments in favor of messages (COMMENTARY)

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich

(RNS) I was working with a historic church, whose majestic facility was built long ago by wealthy industrialists.

The church needed to raise $3 million each year just for facilities maintenance and repairs, plus another $3 million to operate the church, do outreach and serve constituents.

It was an impossible task. If all members — not the 50 percent who actually donate — gave at normal giving levels, they would need 3,000 pledges, three times their most optimistic count.

Meanwhile, emergency repairs required a major capital campaign on top of the $3 million nut.

I made a suggestion: Close the doors, and worship on the front steps and yard. Let the city see your faith. Make a joyful noise.

Instead of hoping that people will wander inside at 11 a.m. on Sunday, set up healing stations on the sidewalk, set out food and coffee for passers-by, set up large screens and speakers. Do it seven days a week.

Preach a strong message in the public square, as Jesus did. Get your name out as a vibrant community of faith, not as the keeper of a monument.

My suggestion went nowhere, of course. People who worship at historic churches tend to count the facility as a primary reason to participate.

This is nothing new. Once the apostolic age ended, Christians moved indoors and have stayed there ever since. In the Western world, what we do is own buildings. Even when we do more, our buildings tend to define us.

My suggestion merits revisiting. As mainline churches adjust to declining membership and new forms of participation, the handsome space for Sunday worship is not only unaffordable, it also fails to meet emerging needs such as intimate community, study and hands-on mission.

Today’s new church start-up probably won’t ever build a sanctuary for dedicated use in worship. That will be a key element in its success.

Instead, some will rent space in a community center or school. Others will exist as a network of small groups that meet in homes, workplaces, coffee shops and outdoors.

I have seen believers worshipping in Central Park, at picnic shelters and hotel function rooms in North Carolina, in a bank building in Tennessee, as well as in countless school auditoriums.

A congregation that nurtures strong personal relationships, a compelling sense of mission and a deep desire to sing, pray and learn can meet anywhere.

A congregation that exists to keep a building open, on the other hand, is doomed. Budget talk will dominate community life. The slow decay of beloved space will strain loyalty. Prospective members will flee from capital campaigns.

What will happen if historic churches step out beyond their facilities?

Yes, many constituents will leave, because they are more invested in space than in the faith community. Decades of opening the doors rather than opening hearts and minds to God will bear sour fruit.

Those who stay will feel liberated from the burden of facilities. They will rejoice that their giving supports mission and ministry, not bricks and mortar. They will step up to serve personally.

Community life will be challenging to maintain, but not nearly so challenging as budget and space-use battles. Clergy will do what they originally felt called to do.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.

Our ancestors were wanderers, a people of tents and mobile shrines. We have sought to glorify God through permanent facilities. But God wants our hearts and hands for work in the world.

Meanwhile, the historic church does much good in its handsome space but still struggles financially.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the president of Morning Walk Media and publisher of Fresh Day online magazine. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)


About the author

Tom Ehrich

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is


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  • There are no ’emerging needs’. You’re facing immense legacy costs because your denomination is imploding demographically. There are a variety of reasons it is imploding, but the most salient is that it deserves to. Anglican vicars are running pointless social clubs that hold sing-alongs weekly and may or may not perform some petty social services. The Catholic priest who said to me, “I want to get to heaven, and I want to take you with me” had a clear understanding of a serious vocation. Not so most clergymen of any stripe. Ted Haggard took up selling insurance. I knew a disaffected Anglican vicar who ended up working for an internet service provider. I know of a quondam Catholic priest who drives a truck. A comfortable majority of clergyman should do likewise. Turn most of the real estate over to talented developers (or untalented, in case of nearly all the post-war inventory), shut most of the seminaries, and have the remnant gather in what’s left.

    I’d suggest you get a normal job as well, Mr. Ehrich, but I cannot figure what skill you might possibly have.

  • Preaching a strong message as Jesus did is needed! Jesus warned about hell
    so people who teach there is no hell are calling God a liar which is not a very
    smart thing to do! People need strong messages like many of the messages
    Jesus gave. Jesus rebuked the people/He told them all to Repent! Luke 13
    says Repent or perish! Jesus told the woman caught in adultery to go and sin
    no more! He told her to change her behavior! 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 lists the
    people who will not inherit the kingdom of heaven if they don’t Repent so the
    people who still get drunk,sleep around/don’t change are in for a very rude
    awakening on judgment day! The Bible says if you have a sharp tongue your
    religion is worthless so mean people who don’t bridle their tongue go to hell.
    Bible says Repent and believe the Gospel to be saved! We all must Repent!

  • All this rebellion against buildings is foolish. God desired a building and had men of God build it. The apostles and the first century church worshiped in temples and in home buildings.

    The church building, while not a prerequisite for believers, is a vital and valuable and God ordained method of gathering.

    While all this foolish rebellion against the church is nothing new, it’s tiring.

  • Karla, you missed the whole point relating to the woman caught in adultery. That story is aimed at those who would bring to judgment on other people. Jesus’ response to the woman is about forgiveness…not a wagging of his finger in her face of “don’t do that again. Jesus is not recorded of saying one harsh word of condemnation, warning, or judgement to “sinners” but the gospels are filled with his words of warning and judgment toward the “righteous” who were all about making sure people knew that their sins were displeasing to God. Paul as well focused so much on grace that he had been accused of giving people permission to sin,.. see Romans 6:1.

  • Frank-I understand the point of the woman that was caught in adultery but
    most seem to only focus on the first part and not on the part where He tells
    her to change the behavior. Read 1 Corinthians 5 and 6 whole chapters
    and Luke 13 the whole chapter. You must not have read where Jesus went
    and He turned over the tables of the money changers/many other parts of
    the Bible. Many sinners are very proud of their sin/self righteous not just
    the pharisees and the so called “leaders” of the church. Many of them are
    hypocrites that only want to talk about abortion/homosexuals so they seem
    so great in their own eyes/so their sin doesn’t seem so bad. We all need to
    look at ourselves/examine ourselves. Thanks for the feedback. God bless.

  • Right. I’ve heard this line from priests in neckties since 1968. Shut down those wasteful buildings and let’s do healing and ‘community’ like Jeeeeezus said. Well, when it comes to ‘community’ and all this other stuff, secular institutions do it cheaper and better. And, one hopes, that before the long run a strong welfare state will provide for these needs.

    The only thing the Church has to offer is fancy buildings and elaborate rituals. Can’t get that good stuff anywhere else. Do that and do it well, as lavishly as possible, and let people know about it. That’s what the Church is and what it’s for.

  • And, one hopes, that before the long run a strong welfare state will provide for these needs.

    Because God forbid ordinary people be largely self-supporting and not the clients of people such as yourself.

  • Karla,

    Yes, Jesus preached a message of repentance to the people of his day. But why? He told them they needed to repent because the “kingdom of the heavens has drawn near.” (Matthew 4:17)

    That kingdom or heavenly government was the major topic of his preaching and is a major theme of the entire Bible from Genesis (Genesis 3:15) to Revelation (Revelation 21:1-4). Jesus used many parables and/or illustrations about God’s kingdom (Matthew 13; Mark 4), which was very important to him (Matthew 13; Mark 4). But why?

    Because God’s heavenly government will soon put an end to all human governments and/or man ruling over man (Daniel 2:44), replacing all of them.

    That government will also put an end to all wicked ones/terrorists on earth so that meek mankind will live on earth forever in perfect peace and security (Isaiah 11:4; Psalm 37:10,11).

    That government will also end human suffering including all sickness, disease, old age and death (Revelation 21:3,4). But why?

    Because God loved the world of mankind so much that he gave his only-begotten son, Jesus, so they not not be destroyed (not tormented forever in hellfire), but have everlasting life on earth (John 3:16).

    The good news of God’s government is being preached in all the inhabited earth for a witness to all nations before the end of this wicked era comes (Matthew 24:14).

    Then God’s kingdom will come and God’s will shall be done, as in the heaven, also on earth (Matthew 6:10), through its millenial rule in the heavens on all meek mankind on earth.

  • Fran-Read 1 Corinthians 6:9-12 and 1 Corinthians 5 the whole chapter
    plus all of Luke 13. God despises sin so that’s why we need to Repent!
    Jesus said I and the Father are one which shows that He was submitted
    to the will of the Trinity/Godhead which is why Jesus Christ said that the
    Father was greater only whlle He/Jesus was on earth was Father greater
    becasue Jesus had to submit but now He/Jesus is back in heaven He is
    co-eternal with God/the Holy Spirit. One God with the three parts but all
    are eternal. Jesus said before Abrhaham I Am and I Am is the term/what
    God said to Moses. In Revelation 1:17-18 Jesus said I Am the First and
    the Last plus the first born over creation refers to His rank. God bless.

  • We were blessed that our church property was of manageable size and although the sanctuary was not as flexible as we liked our fore bearers had provided great meeting and educational space. Our church building was seized by our regional body and sold to help them meet their deficit budget. This was a huge loss to our community. The Church abandoned its mission in favor of self-preservation and proved to us that their priorities in mission can be misguided by their own challenges.

    We continue without our building (and without recognition from our denomination) with an online ministry that reaches 1000 to 4000 people a month worldwide with surprising results. But sustaining local ministry is difficult without a gathering place. Renting space is not less expensive than owning our own—less responsibility perhaps, but also less flexible and with the added challenge of getting along with landlords. I’m not sure about the unity or effectiveness in mission of cell churches.

    It’s a problem, for sure. But one that creates ungodly temptations.

    Be careful.

  • Ok, here’s a question. Elaborate liturgy in a beautiful setting and numinous sacred spaces are wonderful things that enrich our lives. There’s no place to get this outside of church buildings. Yes, we can get the music in concert halls or online, and we can visit museums, etc. But it isn’t the same thing.

    The argument seems to be that this is a luxury we can’t afford this luxury when people are starving so sell off the building and use the money to finance do-good ‘ministries’ or turn them into soup kitchens. No room for sensual-aesthetic-numinous luxury when people need the necessities of life. OK, by the same reasoning, close down the concert halls and museums and give the money to the poor. Stop wasting your time at prayer and contemplation—get out there and work to improve the material conditions of people’s lives. Shut down all humanities departments and devote all education to engineering and medical technology. Shut down zoos, parks and wilderness areas. Use the money to tarmac-over the world, build clean utilitarian cinderblock cottages for all, and provide everyone with clean water, sewers, and decent healthcare.

    I’m haunted by this argument—I take it seriously. But I don’t hear religious people proposing to give all that up in order to do good. It’s only the church buildings they want to sell off, only the religious luxuries they tell us we should forgo in order to do ‘ministry’. WHY? Why is it specifically the pleasures of religiousity that we’re supposed to give up in the interests of moral goodness?

  • Karla,

    So what is the kingdom of God, who comprises it, when was it established, and what is its purpose, according to the Bible?

    Please read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28, with emphasis in verse 28, when Jesus will subject himself to the One who subjected all things to him, that God (and not Jesus may be all things to everyone.”

    At the end of Jesus’ millenial rule as King, he will hand over all rulership back to his Father: since mankind will acquire the perfection that Adam and Eve lost for themselves and all their descendants, including us (on the basis of Jesus’ ransom sacrifice).

    Jesus will no longer be required as a mediator; and mankind will finally have the gift of everlasting life (John 3:16) on earth.

  • A church that costs $6 million a year??? That is a huge expense, and maybe it’s not worthwhile to keep that church going. But don’t generalize to every other church. Buildings do have their purposes – to serve the church community and the wider community, to be beautiful and a home for music and the arts as well as an inspiring place to worship. IMHO, each community has to consider its own situation before deciding what sort of owned or rented accommodation is appropriate for its ministry.

  • A church that costs $6 million a year???

    Mr. Ehrich the Church consultant has not figured out the difference between capital and current budgeting, or between lump sums and annuities.

  • The ‘wider community’ is the thing. Church buildings aren’t private meeting halls for the ‘community’ of the religiously committed but public facilities, like libraries, parks, shopping centers and other public facilities that provide goods and services for all. Without them we’re impoverished. Even if we don’t use them regularly, we want them to be there–for rites of passage and varisous public celebrations.

  • wow, that’s a lot of pride in a small paragraph! Truth is, many denominations are facing downward trends, even the SBC is in decline and the RCC has its own challenges keeping small churches open, let alone all the lawsuits. The so-called decline is largely due to a change in culture (there is no social expectation to attend church, so many disinterested simply don’t, for one), Rev. Ehrich is spot on with his analysis and it’s great that more mainline Protestants are realizing the Spirit’s movement here. By the way, as a church consultant, he never mentioned the church in question was an Episcopal one…