If you build it, they will come.
This line was made popular by the 1989 movie, “Field of Dreams.” In the movie, Kevin Costner hears a voice instructing him to build a baseball stadium after which the spirit’s of deceased baseball legends would come and mysteriously play ball in the magical stadium. The movie is, of course, fictional, but it seems that many churches and pastors have heard a similar voice, “if you build it, they will come.”
There is a voice in the ear of every church leader that whispers promises of larger crowds with the right kind of facilities to house them. It is a growth strategy that has successfully drawn larger crowds to worship services in years past.
But it is a strategy that I believe is flawed.
And it will become increasingly less effective as our culture becomes more obviously “post-Christian.” Let me be clear. Building bigger buildings or church programs is not sinful. Our little church is currently saving to build a new building for more bathrooms and space for our ongoing ministries.
Bigger buildings and programs are often needed to accommodate God’s growing work in a community, but it is the promise “if you build it, they will come” that is flawed.
Businesses compete by offering the best, most accessible, convenient, and cost-efficient products possible. Consumers flock to the event, place, or product that brings the most satisfaction while costing them the very least.
With these principles so ingrained into our society, it is no surprise that they would infiltrate the church.
Many churches assume that they are plateaued or declining because they have lost touch with the times. Their music, building, pastor, and programs are all out of date, so people are no longer interested in attending.
The assumed solution, therefore, is to provide the music, building, pastor, and programs that will successfully attract the people. Offering more attractive and convenient church buildings and services have successfully drawn larger crowds in times past. We could spend the rest of this article biblically critiquing and comparing such strategies, but for the purposes of this article, I want to consider who “they” are that are coming when you build it, and whether “they” will continue to come in a quickly changing America.
In a “Christian” America, church attendance was generally accepted as commendable and even profitable. As church attendance was a norm in society, many people were willing to attend church as long as the church met the felt needs of the individual. As long as Christianity was not too costly, then Christianity could be a nice addition to an already cozy lifestyle. It could even be socially and economically advantageous.
In that context, churches seeking to be numerically successful simply had to provide an attractive enough product to entice the consumer to come to their church rather than the church down the street.
This is why, in many cases, some church plants in culturally Christian cities exploded with numerical growth. Cultural Christians from the community flocked to a church experience that met their felt needs.
This is also why many small churches in a community with a new church plant dwindled down to nothing as many of their attendees transferred to the new and exciting place of worship. This is a sweeping generalization of a common trend of course and is not representative of all situations, but nevertheless, it is a stereotype for a reason.
The “build it and they will come” strategy worked in drawing larger crowds for an America full of people who were culturally conditioned to view church attendance as a good thing as long as it was not a boring or intrusive thing.
The result, however, for many churches are well-attended services full of, at best, nominal Christians seeking a ticket to heaven by way of the widest road possible.
Although there once was a day where cultural Christians would drive to the church that best suited their felt needs, that day, I think, is coming to an end.
Take the metropolitan area of New Orleans for example in which I have been blessed to lead a local church. Firstly, there is no service, program, music, or communicator that will outdo what our city has to offer in entertainment value. The Saints that play in the Superdome on Sundays will always be more attractive to the unbeliever than the saints who gather together to sing songs and study an ancient book.
Furthermore, the upcoming generation is the most heavily marketed-to generation in history. Millennials can smell a marketing scheme from a mile away and they desire authenticity so deeply because they see it so rarely.
Big buildings and flashy programs will not be a draw for millennials in the same way that they once were for baby-boomers.
Lastly, the secularization of our society has led to a whole generation of people who have no moral obligation to attend a local church for any reason at all.
In fact, to be biblically Christian in America is becoming increasingly costly. It is social suicide to take a biblical stance on marriage, gender, or abortion, among other issues. Church attendance, and especially orthodox church doctrine, are no longer cultural norms or expectations.
In the coming generations, they probably won’t come just because you build it, especially if the church holds to biblical teaching. In the generations to come, it will take more than professional quality music, and stage lights to be relevant.
Our outreach efforts have to simplify.
We need to shift from “Build it and they will come” to “Build them and they will go.” This has been the multiplication power of the church since the first century.
This is our best outreach strategy: Make disciples of church members who will go and make disciples in the spheres of influence God has placed them.
The problem for many churches not growing as they would like is not the old pews, it’s the people sitting in those pews. Rather than building bigger buildings and programs to attract more consumers, we must prioritize building people who will be producers of spiritual fruit in the world of lostness where they live, work, and play.
What if every church member saw personal evangelism, intentional hospitality, and regular disciple-making as their God-given responsibility? What if the church was a base of operations for sending evangelist into the workforce every week? Most churches don’t need more evangelistic programs or more attractive buildings.
They don’t need more relevant music -- they need more obedient Christians.
The most attractive part of our churches needs to be the supernatural and authentic community experienced in and through our church members – something that is only explained by the power of the Gospel message itself.
If you are a church member in a plateaued or declining church, resolve first and foremost to be a part of the solution by inviting non-believers into your life and home. Be a church member who shares the gospel and who is doing the work of evangelistic ministry. Don’t attribute the lack of evangelistic fervor in your church to the Sunday morning or the building in which services are held. The lack of evangelistic fervor is more likely due to the lack of evangelistic living Monday through Saturday.
If you are a pastor, do not give all of your attention to building “it” (whatever it is) so that more might come. Instead, give your attention to building “them” so that more might go.
Model discipleship relationships by pouring yourself into a few who will pour themselves into others. Model evangelism in your day to day lifestyle. Preach the Word. Pray. If you persevere in this patiently, then there will come a time, if God wills, where you will need to build more programs and larger meeting spaces because of the growth that is happening through the disciple-making of your church members.
Growing a church by growing people will be slower, more difficult, disappointing, and totally worth it. When visitors do come, they will not be wowed by things man-made, rather they will be wowed by a God-given love your church members have for the Lord, for one another, and for the lost.
It is an ancient strategy for a modern world, but one through which God will be glorified in every nation and in every generation.
Build them and they will go.
Brandon Langley is an NOBTS alum and the pastor of St. Rose Community Church in St. Rose, LA. This post first appeared on his site, DevotedTogether.com.