If you build it …

Thanks to Agent B for ruining our Saturday by passing along this tidbit of news out of Abilene.

Chrissy and I both know this church well from our time in the Friendly Frontier, our best friends attended there for 6 years, and we even attended there for a short time.  This is a loving community that has grown by leaps and bounds over the last 10 years.  But the news that this church is taking out a loan for $9+ million to more than double the size of their already 75,000 square foot building … well, to steal a phrase from my good buddy Miller, “fires up my Tourette’s.”  I’m angry at this.

And I just couldn’t keep it to myself … not on this.  Here’s what I wrote in the comments section of the Reporter-News article:

Until every person in Abilene has a place to sleep tonight…

…and a warm meal

…and a set of warm clothes

…and a few friends to love them

…and an opportunity to work with their hands

I don’t want to hear one more story of another congregation “building bigger barns” — saying nothing of $9 million ones. In fact, my stomach turns at the Beltway news when I think about the number of hurting people right under their noses and around the world, especially in today’s economic climate.

As I recall, Jesus will not judge his people based on the number of bodies “ministered to” or the square footage of our church campuses or how many “Lord, Lords” we utter, but on how we treat the hungry, the imprisoned, the naked. In James, the writer describes “true religion” as how God’s people care for widows and orphans. Amos told Israel that God’s judgment was coming against it because they built stone buildings and vineyards and gave abundant grain and burnt offerings … but disregarded the poor and oppressed.

I think about the number of non-profits and faith-based groups in Abilene who are working out on the margins of society, in the gutters, and in unglamorous ways — and who scrape by for funds. I know of directors of ministries who take no salary so that those funds might be redirected to the people and projects who need it the most.

How far could $9.5 million go toward ending homelessness in Abilene?

The Beltway news is certainly not surprising, but it is shocking all the same. I love and have loved many people at Beltway, but this expansion is unacceptable. There, I said it. When 80% of a church’s funds are put toward facilities and salaries, Jesus cries. He must be sobbing at this news.

If my comment sounds angry and judgmental, that’s because it is. =)  Few things fire me up like stories of churches and church leaders a) abusing their influence over the flock by using “God’s will” as a rationale to do just about anything; and b) totally missing the point (in this case, assuming that God cannot work through the congregation unless they build this building).  The thing that gets me is that in a member vote (after an impassioned plea from the pastor basically saying that the leadership believe this expansion is the way God is leading the church), a whopping 99% of the voters approved the project.  How, out of 3,000+ members/lurkers, could virtually no one oppose this?  Are Beltway members so blindly trusting of their leadership that they’ll go along with anything?  Could it really be God’s will that $9.5 million be spent to expand a church’s worship space and parking lot?  Digital children’s Sunday School check-in kiosks?  Really?

Several Beltway members had commented to the many responses to the story, so I followed the above comment by asking one of them to tell me some specific ways this new facility will be used to serve the poor and marginalized and disenfranchised, and not just church “insiders.”  No responses yet.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Does it strike you the same way it struck me, in light of the suffering around the world (and in our own backyards)?  Or are you completely fine with it?  I want to know, so comment.  Let’s generate some discussion around this.

(Beltway people, I want to hear from you, too!)


16 responses to this post.

  1. Ruining your saturday? Anything I can do to help.

    Don’t quit asking questions Steve. You are good at that.

    I on the other hand…perhaps I’m getting too old. Or better yet…I’ve lived in Abilene WAY too long now…but it’s getting harder for me to see any real long term change in the social club mentality of the church world. Just read those comments from beltway members…

    I’m not throwing my arms up just yet. But mega church members are as passionate about their system as you and I are about ours, whatever it is.

    I think they see safety in numbers. Or perhaps “more can do more” when it comes to a large church and the kingdom. I don’t know.

    Keep on keeping on bro. I’ll try to do the same.


  2. I’ll be the first to say I’m with you on this. Shameful and ungodly.


  3. Are you sure that is Beltway? I didn’t see an Israeli flag in the drawings?


  4. Posted by thepriesthood on October 26, 2008 at 12:57 am

    I’m not surprised either. that IS the Bible-Belt way, you know. they’re just living up to the name.


  5. Posted by MAH on October 26, 2008 at 1:45 am

    My place of employment delivers hundreds of dollars of Chinese food a week to the church office 🙂

    (I didn’t post my whole name for fear I won’t receive tips the next time I deliver there)


  6. My last church in the US spent $6 Million to build a building. They have contributed a few hundreds dollars toward my work in Honduras. I love them, but something is wrong. Very wrong. It’s not MY work that concerns me. It’s about feeding people, housing people, and helping people find jobs, relationships and jobs. Having a sound system that almost cost a million dollars upsets me. A lot. Especially when I see people all the time here with not enough to eat. What happened to a mic and a few speakers?


  7. I just love how religious people seem to always hide behind “it’s God’s will” to do just about anything they want to do.


  8. Posted by Daniel Gray on October 27, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    You know me… I also find it frustrating. We still think following Jesus has to be a top-down approach. But Jesus turned everything upside down.


  9. I read the comments on the Reporter-News article by the Beltway Park staffer, and he has some good points about nurturing their church members. But I think outsiders are going to look at those numbers–$9.5 million vs. Abilene’s poverty situation–and the justifications just don’t stack up. It’s unconscionable. Beltway Park should understand that they live in a glass house in Abilene, for better or for worse, and take responsibility for the symbolism of their actions.

    I really appreciated all the comments you made, but I didn’t want to jump in and say anything because it was turning into enough of a fire fight.


  10. Posted by Rhonda S on October 28, 2008 at 12:18 am

    Your blog could not have been more timely. We have struggled with our church’s decision to do the very same thing x five (50M+) and after prayerful consideration have left in search of church that is modeling Christ in the community.

    Keep up the thought provoking commentary. I tune in often.
    Your cuz -Rhonda


  11. These are all great comments.

    Those who do not follow Jesus keep a watchful eye on those of us who do. I’ve always thought that living a lavish life or a church spending an exorbitance on itself “to nurture its members” was a terrible testimony to the masses.

    George Carlin gave a good example, explaining how we “…follow an invisible guy…who needs MONEY. Lots and lots of MONEY”.

    Terrible testimony.


  12. Posted by jrsypoet1776 on October 29, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    Gladly bumped into your blog, Steve. So glad I did that I’ve subscribed. 🙂 I visited my boyfriend’s church (the new campus that recently opened in St. Louis). He only attended for only a brief time after his salvation. Our visit together was our last. As pastor led talked about tithing, he said they owed $5M on the building over the next several years, $70,000 for the neon signs on the building and $25,000 for each of the two almost-“jumbotrons” on either side of the stage and that God wants His house to look good, so give, give, give! Needless to say that was our last time going. I tend to lean toward the more traditional worship services and was sickened by the “mega church” bigger is better mentality. We mulled over how many people could be reached, saved, fed, clothed, healed, taught and how many people could be sent into the mission fields with $120,000. What a sorely misguided definition of stewardship they must have! We now go to a church that consists of about 30 people and meets in the cafeteria of a local Christian college. We worship with a keyboard and voices. It’s the best learning we’ve ever received. We know the pastor by name and he knows us. We aren’t lost in the crowd. We aren’t just a check in the offering plate every week. You are spot on for being up in arms about this. And I couldn’t agree more about using “God’s will” as a blanket reason to do anything we want. God bless.


  13. I tend to agree with you, Steve, about unnecessary building projects, particularly extravagent ones. I will say that it’s theoretically possible that a church could “earn” their money back (even $9 million) if used right. I don’t literally mean “earn,” but if used to provide food & clothing for the poor, or perhaps language classes to immigrants or sessions teaching job skills. If that’s the case, though $9 million is still a lot of money, it’s seen as an investment.

    With that being said, I’d point out that I said “theoretically.” In practice, I doubt it happens very much.

    But, Steve, I’d also say that this is down the “Waste of Money” list for Christian. I’d bet if you add up the amount of money spent by members of an average size church on unneeded clothing, food, trips, movies, satellite TV in order to have 500 channels when one only watches 25, etc., you’d end up with far more than $9 million. Doesn’t make it any better, but wasting money is a particular talent of Americans, perhaps especially (given the Bible’s teachings on money) Christians.


  14. Thanks to those who are commenting for the first time, especially you, jrsypoet. =)

    Danny – Appreciate the comment. I take issue with the “earn back” part of it, though. Why would a church need 150,000 square feet to accomplish the justice initiatives you listed? In fact, those could be done without a building at all, probably better. (you’d at least have a better shot at getting “poor people” to come to “be served” — understand, I hate that language — if church were more fluid, lifestyle-oriented, etc, and not centered in a big, expensive building)

    I’m not necessarily against the idea of “place” when discussing how we do church, but I am against putting all the eggs in that basket. Mega-churches that build $9 million buildings (onto their already ginormous ones) put an unscriptural emphasis on church as “place.”

    My point is this: church isn’t primarily “place” … it’s people. People living radically different than the predominate way of the world, demonstrating and announcing the peace and freedom of Christ, showing love in all things, and caring for the poor. Do churches sometimes have “places” they regularly assemble? Sure. They always have. But to spend that kind of money enhancing a place where more and more people can come and “be ministered to” is severely missing the point, the point being that we are a people sent.


  15. Posted by Mitch on October 31, 2008 at 9:31 pm

    I know this Beltway thing has captured the eyes of many a Christian in Abilene and across the U.S., but, like some of you have touched on, things like this are all too common in various forms from every kind of church, even ones that might be considered “modest”.

    For instance, a church might send 20 short-term mission team members to Papua New Guinea or Jamaica or Mexico to lead VBS events for a week or two. While this is undoubtedly spiritually enriching to the individuals and churches affected by the mission team, I don’t think sending 20 people is the most benevolent thing to do for those people.

    I figure a trip to a foreign country clears the $1,000 mark just in air fare alone. $1,000 for 20 people = at least $20,000 in plane tickets alone. I say send much fewer people on these trips with many more economic resources (money, food, vitamins, etc.) and not only will the natives be affected by the presence of Christians from another country, but their physical needs will be the initial focus (in reference to Nic Acosta’s post in the last thread).

    While the Beltway building issue seems to scream louder than an issue like the one above, it’s still something so common in so many different forms that deserve the same attention.

    I encourage churchgoers to keep an eye out for things like this.


  16. Posted by jrsypoet1776 on November 5, 2008 at 10:09 pm

    Ministering is free. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is free from us to others, though bought with the highest price ever paid in history. It makes me sick when everything comes down to money, because at the end of the day, everyone’s going to have a different idea of how it’s best used to reach a lost and dying world. Maybe it’s because God has given me a heart more geared toward my Judea than Jerusalem and the rest of the world. I’d rather spare the buck to save a life at home and I can do that just as easily with the testimony of what God’s done in my life over a cup of coffee or in the checkout line at the grocery store.

    But Mitch, point well taken. There needs to be transparency to the body when it comes to stewardship. All the more difficult to be accountable and as far-reaching for understanding on the part of the body with membership in the thousands.

    Still loving my little church.. 🙂


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