Winston Churchill made this interesting observation: “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” I’m not sure he was focused on church facilities, but it is worth serious consideration for the leaders of every ministry.
Over the last 40 years, our Church Doctors have consulted well over 500 US congregations from 78 denominations as well as nondenominational and independent churches. As part of the onsite visit, we interview a cross-section of the congregation. Church members are often vocal about church staff, programs, and challenges and frequently share opinions about the pastor’s sermons, personality, and leadership. Further, they often share thoughts about ministries or programs. However, they rarely bring up issues about their facilities. The exception? Relatively new members often notice both excellent and not-so-beneficial issues about the building(s). For long-term members, the facility is like a well-worn shoe. And that “shoe” could be centuries old and somewhat obsolete.
Have you ever been to a church that has a bell tower? What’s up with that? The story is a great example of how Christianity can get “rusty” in old—very old—denominations. The Protestant and Catholic traditions of many of the early churches built in the United States were developed by Christians with generational influence from Europe.
Long before radio, television, and the Internet, news traveled from town to town, city to city, through people. There were couriers who traveled on horseback—or by other means—from village to village or city to city to share the news. Most often, they would use the local church, which usually had the greatest capacity for a crowd. When the courier arrived, someone would ring the bell in the steeple. That was the signal to the townspeople to drop whatever they were doing and gather at the church. The courier would use the pulpit to share everything from regional weather events to reports about the progress of a war, updates on the nation’s leadership, and who won the national election.
This begs the question: Why do some churches have bell towers today? The most common answer given: “We’ve always done it that way.” While this is not an “oddity” to the members, it raises a strange—often subconscious—reaction among newcomers to the faith. There is a subtle message: “Christian religion? Old, out-of-date, and irrelevant to my life.”
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