Many of us remember the 1989 movie “The Field of Dreams.” It is about the sense of compulsion a nearly bankrupt Iowa farmer felt to build a baseball field in the middle of acres of corn. The voice he kept hearing that was audible to him said, “If you build it, he will come.”
For the past 23 years, this quote in a slightly altered form has been applied to many different situations. One is the felt compulsion by congregations to construct a new building, whether or not it fits an empowering strategy for the forward movement of the congregation. The way this movie quote has been used is, “If we build it, they will come”.
The clear implication is that if you build a certain facility it will automatically attract new people to the life and ministry of the congregation. Let’s look at this statement, and several other related statements.
First, “If we build it they will come.” This statement assumes a new building represents the right program for the right target group that attracts people to the life and ministry of the congregation. Admittedly, there are some congregations, some situations, some sizes, and some timing where this may is true.
The challenge, however, is there are too many situations where this is a substitute for spiritual motivation, strategies focused on the development of people rather than the providing of a facility, and the contribution that exceptional staff leadership can bring to a given target group without a new building.
Second, “If we don’t build it they will leave.” This is the threat or desperation approach. As opposed to having a dream of the new things that can happen through the programs, ministries, and activities of a congregation, it is one of we will lose our competitive advantage if we do not build it. People will go to other churches. Perhaps they are already leaving.
This is the approach begun decades ago when congregations starting building gyms to attract or keep teenagers. Later this modulated to building a family life center. Too often there was not a strong enough strategy that undergirded the facility, and inadequate staff and volunteers to make the strategy work.
Third, “If we build it without an adequate strategy and staffing, it will drive our budget.” This occurs when the new facility does not attract new core households into the life and ministry of the congregation. The cost of maintaining the facility begins to be part of budget creep in the congregation where the expanded facility drives the budget of the congregation. It is a fixed cost and it must be paid. It becomes a higher priority than the missional engagement and spiritual formation of the congregation.
Fourth, “If we build it one day we may re-purpose the use of it.” One of the significant challenges for congregations is to provide facilities that are built flexible enough that their prime purpose can be changed one day. Too many congregations in a position to add facilities do it based on the current fad in programming. Or they too deeply focus on one age group so that the cost of retrofitting to re-purpose the facility is an overwhelming burden on the finances of the congregation and does not happen.
One example is Christian education facilities built in the 1950s and 1960s with a large general meeting area with small classrooms around the perimeter that would hold six to 12 people. It was thought this would always be the approach to Christian education. Now many of those small rooms are used for storage, offices, and other purposes.
Fifth, “If we building it one day we may have to close it down.” Too often congregations build a new building they had always hoped they would have, at a time they have already plateaued and started to decline. When this happens, at some point in the future portions of the church facilities may need to be closed down.
It may not be the latest building constructed, but it will be the one least usable for the current programs, ministries, and activities of the congregation. Or, it could be the one with the greatest maintenance and operating cost. Or, it could be the one the greatest distance from the core location within the church facilities.
We may build it, but they either do not come or stop coming after a while.