So your church is considering relocation. It can be a disturbing and sad subject to discuss. The purpose of this article is to give you some biblical handles on how to approach thinking the matter through. It isn’t written to say that your church should or should not relocate. The answer to that question will vary with the church.
Often, the best way to grapple with a tough subject is to ask ourselves a series of questions. Below are some questions God asked in the Bible.
Why are you angry? Anger is the most typical reaction of church members when relocation is under consideration. Someone not connected to the church would wonder why there is so much distress. The motive of those making the recommendation generally concerns those things church members should value – greater opportunity for evangelism and growth, more effective ministry. But the reason, of course, is that so many of the members’ memories are associated with that building. One hears comments like: “My father was on the committee that built this building” “We had my mother’s funeral here” “Both of our daughters were married here” “I taught Sunday School here for 47 years” It is very much like the experience of a family when the last patriarch or matriarch in a family passes away. They grieve not only the passing of the loved one, but also the loss of the house. It had been the gathering place at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cousins grew up climbing the big trees in front of the old home place. That place, for them, is layered in memories. The same is true for the church building. No wonder such strong emotions bubble up!
“Why are you angry?” is the question God asked Cain in Genesis 4:6. Cain had offered a sacrifice of fruit to the Lord and the Lord had rejected his sacrifice. Cain had worked hard for the fruit. It was good fruit! He felt really good about it. Yet while his sacrifice was rejected, his herdsman brother Abel’s sacrifice was pleasing to the Lord. That made Cain furious! So God came to reason with him. “If you do right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen 4:7 HCSB). In times of strong emotions, we too have to master our anger. And the one simple truth we have to come terms with is this: All we have to do is obey God.
“Man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness” (James 1:20 HCSB). You won’t treat people with whom you disagree in a Christ-like way when you are mad. It’s hard to make wise decisions when your judgment is impaired.
Attacking a person whose motive is to help the church fulfill the Great Commission would not be a godly approach. Loudly arguing on the basis of your sentimental memories is not a spiritual thing to do. Instead, be careful to calmly deal with the facts. This decision cannot be based on memories or emotions.
There is no reason to be upset or defensive. If relocation is not the right thing, then there’s nothing to be upset about. If relocation is the right thing for your church to do – if it is God’s will – you will not be betraying your grandfather who was on the building committee or your daughter who was married in the sanctuary. Instead, you will be obeying God. So relax, all you have to do is obey.
Where are you? Does your congregation have adequate facilities? Do you have space for growth? Do you have adequate parking? Are you located in a community of people like those in your congregation? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then you probably don’t need to relocate. But if your community is transitional or your facilities are landlocked, you may need to relocate.
Sometimes, we can’t see the condition of our buildings. We’ve been going there so long that we don’t notice the cracks in the wall. We don’t see what a first-time visitor sees. We love it so much that we are willing to park on the street and walk 500 feet to the door. We see the neighborhood as it was more than as it is. We have trouble seeing our facilities as they really are.
“Where are you?” is the question Adam had to answer: “So the Lord God called out to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And he said, ‘I heard You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid’ (Gen 3:9-10 HCSB). Adam gave a truthful answer. We may find this kind of honesty and openness more difficult.
Where have you come from, and where are you going? As you study the history in most churches, you find that they were founded by a group of people burdened to reach their communities. They prayed and worked hard to establish a new congregation. Winning people to Jesus was the highest priority. Stories in the church archives tell of revivals and all-night prayer meetings. It was all about the Great Commission. The buildings they built were a means to that end. Does that sound like your church heritage?
Hagar ran away from Sarah and God went to find her: “He said, ‘Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ She replied, ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.’ Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, ‘You must go back to your mistress and submit to her mistreatment'” (Gen 16:8-9 HCSB). Even though it was tough, Hagar had to get back to her purpose in life, to serve in the household of Abraham. The questions in considering relocation are, first, “Can we continue to fulfill our mission in this location?”— and if not, will we stick with the mission of our founders or change our mission to become a historic preservation society?
What are you doing here? Elijah had spent all of his energy in battling the false prophets on Mount Carmel. Then, when he was emotionally drained, Jezebel sent him a death threat. Elijah ran!
“And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ So he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life'” (1 Kings 19:9-10 NKJV).
Elijah was presently located in a cave. God’s question was, “Why are you here?” In his case, the answer didn’t satisfy the Lord. So, God rested him, encouraged him, and sent him out with a new set of orders for a new mission.
What is your church doing in your present location? If someone were to surmise your congregation’s purpose from your actual practices, what would they guess is the purpose of your church? Do you exist to take care of each other? Does your congregation exist merely to “Keep the doors of this church open?” Or, are you planning for and effectively reaching people in your community? — Or what? Why are you there? And will your answer satisfy God?
Where is your brother? Who does your church exist to reach? Most congregations would answer, “Everyone!” But most congregations don’t have a plan to reach everyone, but rather only one slice of the population in their communities.
It is hard to be more than one kind of church at a time. Churches have personalities, just like we have as individuals. Multiple Personality Disorder is just that – a disorder. We have to be what God has called us to be and reach all we can, being who we are. It has been said, Folks like us make a church like ours, and a church like ours can reach folks like us.
Look around your community. Are the people in your community like the people in your church? Here are some possibilities:
- The differences in culture and language are not so great. Everyone gets along, and with a little tweaking of the worship style or by adding an additional style of worship, you can reach into new age groups or population segments where you live. Offering new small groups would be another piece of the puzzle.
- Your community is now very diverse. It will require a diversity of peoples and churches to effectively evangelize the entire community. It may be possible to do this by having your facility be the home of multiple congregations to reach multiple cultures and languages.
- Your community has changed. Your church has come to exist like an outpost or a colony. Perhaps, a high percentage of your membership has moved out of the community and drive back to attend services. If so, you are not going to be able to persuade an adequate number of people from outside your community to take the same drive. Why not sponsor a church plant for the people group who now populate your community?
If the people in your community and the people in your congregation are the same kind of people, you may not need to relocate. But, if they are very different, here is the cold hard fact: unless you have a church full of people with the missionary gift of cross-cultural ministry, you will never reach them. Stop blaming the pastor because the church isn’t growing.
I am not saying you are not responsible to reach your community. But we are now talking about strategy, not responsibility. The question now is how. Cross-cultural ministry is best done by enlisting and equipping indigenous peoples for the ministry and planting a new church. Maybe you need to relocate to a community where your membership can have an effective ministry and then start a new church that will be housed in your current facility. Sometimes, that is the very best way to fulfill the founding vision of your church, to reach the people who live in your community.
“Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?'” (Gen 4:9) Christians all know the answer.
Do you love Me more than these? Peter had gone fishing. He simply didn’t know what to make of everything that had taken place. Jesus had been killed. Now He has appeared alive. Peter had denied Him… after swearing he would never do such a thing. Faced with confusion and an overwhelming sense of failure, Peter is dismayed. So he went fishing. He had fished for a living; it was a familiar environment. It was a context in which he felt secure. And now they weren’t catching anything. It wasn’t that they weren’t catching many; they hadn’t caught any! Then, a man on the shore calls out to them, asking if they have caught anything. He suggests they try the other side of the boat. And the nets are filled. And they know it is Jesus. Ashore, they eat fish with the Teacher.
“When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?'” (John 21:15 HCSB)
Bible students sometimes discuss whether Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him more than the other disciples (as he had boasted earlier) or whether he loved Jesus more than the fishing nets laying about. The nets were right there, and were a source of security for him at a time when Peter felt so much confusion. Either way, we need to be able to answer, yes, we love Him more than anything. Our yes is proven in our obedience to His command to “Feed My lambs.” Do we love Jesus more than our sources of security? Does Jesus mean more to us than the building in which we worship Him? Is our mission more important to us than our memories? Are we more interested in taking care of His sheep or in taking care of our sheep pen? Again, the answer is not in our words, but in our obedience to His command to “Feed My lambs.”
Your church may not need to relocate. Or it may not need to relocate… yet. But, as Christians, we must be able to say, “Yes, Lord. I love you more than these.”
Yes, Lord, I love you more than the room where my mother taught Sunday School, or the sanctuary where my daughters were married, or the baptistery where I was baptized, or the pews where our family has sat for three generations. If you cannot honestly say that, then you will have to face the possibility that your building has become like a graven image. “But that can’t be! God gave us this building” someone will object. As you read Numbers 21:1-8, you see the children of Israel being bitten by poisonous snakes. God instructs Moses to make bronze copy of the snake, promising that if they will look up to see it, they will be cured. And cured they are. God gave the bronze the serpent. God blessed the bronze serpent. It was such a good thing that Jesus would later use this event as a figure of speech to describe His saving work. However, if you read First Kings 18:4, you find that the children of Israel had begun to worship the bronze serpent instead of the Lord. That which was good, and of God, had been turned into a graven image. They attributed powers to the object and relied on it for worship – instead of the Lord alone. Hezekiah finally had to destroy it. If you feel you have to have that building to worship, that it helps you worship, then you are so close to being an idolater, it is terrifying.
As you think through the matter of relocation, take a deliberate approach. Look at the facts. Give others involved in the discussion (and their motives) the benefit of the doubt. Think about the legacy you will leave, not just the legacy someone left you. Place a priority on continuing the purpose of the church, not just its facilities – on mission more than memories. Even if your congregation doesn’t need to relocate, your vote to stay should come from the right motives. Sometimes, that requires a brutal kind of honesty that is difficult to come by. And if your church does need to relocate, it may require a kind of death to self. Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me” (Luke 9:23 HCSB). It will take courage and God’s grace, but that is the only proper way for a Christian to approach this emotional subject.