On Sunday morning, as I sit in my office to prepare for worship, I can hear the muffled sounds of singing and preaching coming from the main hall in our building. Pre-school aged children are playing in the classroom next to my office. The aroma of brewed coffee comes from the kitchen. Communion cups have already been prepared.
And yet . . . no one from our church has arrived. Instead, at 8:30am on a Sunday morning, members of Grace Fellowship Church in Bardstown, Kentucky, have gathered for their weekly worship gathering. It’s a church we planted, and it’s a church with whom we’re delighted to share our property.
We planted a church in our own building.
In 2012, the elders of Bardstown Christian Fellowship (my church) presented to our members a proposal for what we termed “On-Site Church Planting.” The early years of Bardstown Christian Fellowship, a church planted south of Louisville, were difficult. Evangelism proved an uphill struggle in an area where only one in 10 people are active in church, and half are Roman Catholic. The church experienced slow but steady growth over the first decade. In 2011, the elders recognized we’d soon outgrow our meeting space. We had little enthusiasm for spending more money on a bigger building. Neither did we have any desire to start a second worship service. So, committed to reaching the lost through church planting, the elders were led to start a second church.
What we did next is unusual. We planted this second church in the same building. Two churches, one location. One meets at 8:30, the other at 11:00.
We launched Grace Fellowship Church in August 2012. We commissioned three of our elders and a number of families to start this new work. We started the BCF Network, which owns the property and its furnishings. The member churches have equal access to the property. As churches, we’ve pooled our resources so that we hold everything in common. We jointly fund a church administrator, and we share the expenses of the facilities. This is our long-term strategy, to make the facility available as a public space in which like-minded churches can gather for worship and partner together to reach our city and the nations.
Grace Fellowship (the newer church) has already celebrated a number of baptisms and is connecting with people we never reached. We’re convinced our community in central Kentucky doesn’t need more church buildings, but more healthy churches. Churches in small-town America already own enough properties; they just need to be more strategic in how we’re using them.
THE RATIONALE: WHAT IS A CHURCH
Many pastors I’ve shared this story with have raised their hands up in complete confusion. They ask, “Why would you do that? “In order to best understand the rationale for the creation of a property-sharing network of churches, it’s first necessary to be clear about what a church is. Most Christians would acknowledge a church is not a building but the people—and yet, when we strip away a building from a church, we begin to question the legitimacy or viability of that church.
A growing church has options to consider when dealing with practical issues related to space and organization. Many would consider starting multiples services or campuses. However, to do so distorts the very nature of the church.
Jesus uses the word ekklesia when referring to the church in Matthew 18:17. When a brother sins against another brother and does not repent, then a decision is deferred to the gathered congregation of believers, the ekklesia, to remove him from that local and visible body of believers. In using the term, Jesus indicates that the act of assembling together as one group is integral to the authority and identity of a particular church. In Matthew 18, Christ grants authority to the identifiable assembly of Christians to determine who is, or is not, a member of the church. Multiple assemblies, therefore, suggest multiple churches.
Jonathan Leeman puts it this way,
“What shall we say constitutes a local church on earth? The answer which the Bible gives, I think, is simple and straightforward: a local church is constituted by a group of Christians gathering together bearing Christ’s own authority in the gospel to exercise the power of the keys of binding and loosing through the ordinances.”
A church then, as Leeman correctly points out, is a gathering of Christians that exercises the authority given to it in order to fulfill the mission it has received so that it be a display of Christ to the watching world. A group that doesn’t regularly gather at one time and in one place is therefore not a church as understood by the use of the term ekklesiain Matthew 18.
This understanding of the church as being a visible assembly of believers that worship together is key to understanding the rationale for Bardstown Christian Fellowship and our choice to develop a network of churches rather than starting multiple services or sites.
YOU COULD DO IT, TOO
Many growing churches are in towns and cities where members drive by many other church buildings in order to get to their own church service. In other words, just because a church meets in a particular neighborhood doesn’t mean it will only effectively reach that particular neighborhood. Furthermore, sending a group of believers to a separate location necessitates duplicating resources and investing funds in new accommodations and equipment, funds that could perhaps be better spent on missions and ministry.
Acknowledging this, a growing church might consider a new gathering place or building a larger building. This is a perfectly reasonable response to growth—though it’s often a costly one. A church gathering in a city with extremely high property values, or a church meeting in a nation where it’s difficult to own property, will find this option increasingly out of reach.
I simply want to offer an alternative to a costly building campaign or tying up resources in more bricks and mortar. That alternative is establishing of a network of churches that partner together to share property and resources, and support each other in the work of the ministry.
The Bardstown Christian Fellowship of Churches is an example of just that: a network of likeminded churches that share the same property, jointly fund administrative staff, and work together to make disciples of all nations.