Why did BridgewaterChurch sell our property?
(Updated March, 2011)
There have been a number of questions and concerns and even rumors about why a church would sell a property located at such a prime location (at an interstate exit).
We’re grateful for your interest, and we’re excited and honored to share a glimpse of our story.
It’s an unusual story, perhaps even revolutionary, so read at your own risk… It doesn’t start pretty, but God stories rarely do, if you’ve ever read the Bible. There’s a lot of confession and failure in the story, and a lot of hard questions that may make you squirm in your seat. There is also beauty and truth and joy – and the holy, rescuing love of God interwoven throughout this story. You may be shocked or unsettled or even irritated by the story. Or, God may touch your heart through the story He is writing among us.
God has begun to change the deep places in our hearts, and to change the way we see the world, and especially the way we see Him and His kingdom. Those changes have been both extremely hard and indescribably wonderful.
We no longer see the Church as being about a place and a pastor – but about a Person – Jesus Christ. That revelation began a revolution – one that is still a work in progress among a very imperfect group of people seeking to know and follow our perfect Savior. God’s grace has been the lubricant for this journey – the healing oil that has kept us from grinding ourselves to pieces in the deadly machinery of religion.
Yet as a congregation many of us are beginning to experience more Life than we ever imagined – abundant Life – fullness of Life – the Life of the Spirit - Life unlike anything we ever expected. And we know we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg, when it comes to the wonders of the Life of God.
So we thought we’d share a little of the story. Maybe it will be an encouragement to others. Maybe it will unsettle some out of the same rut in which we were stuck for so long. Only God knows what He’ll do with the story.
By the way, please don’t congratulate us if you happen to resonate with our story, and don’t condemn us if you don’t. We didn’t come to this place on purpose. It was God’s providential intervention. He took us by surprise, and we went kicking and screaming. Sometimes as we look back on the past five years it feels like God ambushed us. We’re grateful that He did. Well, now we’re grateful. It took some time to get to a place of gratitude, to see that God was holding us close even in the midst of our pain and our failures, but that’s part of what makes the stories He writes so interesting and so rich.
This web page is about the length of a book chapter. So, if you don’t want to read the whole story, but just want the bottom line as to why we are selling and moving, then simply scroll forward to the last paragraph.
The Train Wreck that Started the Story
First, some background. Before we tell the story of why we are selling our church building, it helps to put it all in context by first sharing a glimpse of the much more important story of the people.
However, we add this disclaimer before you read the story. Some former members and participants in this church family have read the story, and have come back to share that they do not think that some parts of it are a fair or accurate representation of them personally. So, we acknowledge that some of the "we" statements do not reflect the feelings, beliefs or experience of every person who has been part of this church body over the past five years. However, we believe the story is an accurate general representation of the overwhelming majority, even if it seems offensive to some of us to be this honest and open. Yet, if we believe that there is absolutely no condemnation in Christ (Rom. 8:1), then sharing the stories of Him at work through our struggles and our failures are opportunities for God's grace to shine into the darkness much more brightly than any interstate billboard, or to speak hearts much more loudly than any three point exegetical sermon. Disclaimer over.
Our story begins like this.
Once upon a time, about five years ago, Bridgewater was a church that was going places and really making things happen for the kingdom of God in Knoxville, or so it seemed. We were worshiping and evangelizing and discipling and praying and teaching the inerrant Word of God in Knoxville and around the world with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm and results. God had opened some unique doors for cutting-edge, hands-on ministry to our community, especially among the poor and the hurting. We even began to grasp the truth that God wanted to heal our souls, not just save us and take us to heaven. More people were attending and joining the church, lives were being touched. We had great music and great worship events. Eventually we got crowded, so we decided to build more and bigger buildings to hold everyone, and to be able to have more activities here on campus. We had a vision and a plan and a congregation that was steadily increasing in size, and we were seeing some exciting stuff happen. We were on the fast track to being another very successful church in Knoxville. We felt pretty good about our selves. And in fairness to all of us, we were simply doing what we had been taught and had always seen - what we sincerely believed to be "church". And God was at work among us. He is always patiently working among and pursuing His children, no matter how far off His path we may wander in our sincere efforts to be religious or moral or impressive.
But God had much better plans for this church family than we did - and He eventually intervened in love and mercy, and began the process of rescuing us from ourselves. He allowed our totally sincere, wonderfully crafted plans to build an impressive church for Him to be wrecked. The details of the wreck aren’t the point of the story, but it was incredibly painful. Of course at the time we didn’t know it was God allowing this. We blamed the train wreck on Satan and on sin. The enemy was certainly at work, as he always is, but he didn’t know he was playing right into God’s hands. Of course, we didn’t know that either, and so we were filled with fear and anger and blame and conflict. Looking back, we were practically clueless about God, and how often He rescues us through our pain, suffering and failures. The Bible tells us that and shows us that over and over, but we never understood it or believed it. Funny how often that’s the case with mankind, as we try to handle God’s Word. We read and study the Word of God, all the while missing the reality of God Himself. In John 5 Jesus speaks to how we search the scriptures looking for life, and yet often miss the fact that eternal Life is all about Him.
"You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
We thought the Church was about a nice place (building), a dynamic pastor who powerfully taught the Word of God, and a menu of wonderful programs that attracted and retained adults and youth and children. We knew it all started with Jesus, but to be honest He just wasn’t enough to keep us going. We meant well, but we were simply unwilling to live out John 5:40 - to come to Jesus as our Life - every day. We didn’t realize our New Life was literally Him – Him living in us and through us – every day. That whole abiding in Christ (John 15:5) thing seemed very impractical; something for the mystics, not us ordinary people. We needed more.
We sincerely believed that we needed a lot of very impressive religious events, preferably along with a big crowd, to inspire us and make us feel spiritually alive. We saw the Church as a spiritual filling station. We needed something or someone to fill our gas tank each Sunday morning in order to get us through the week, as some have had the courage to admit. We even heard the words, “I need my fix” more than once, in reference to a Sunday worship service. That subtly unhealthy spiritual dynamic of dependence on a Sunday morning church experience turned out to be more like an addiction to a drug, instead of an abiding relationship with the God who is in us every moment of the week.
So God mercifully began to deconstruct what we knew as church. At the same time, He began to subtly invite the Bridgewater family into a slow, often terrifying, journey of discovering that there was far more to His Kingdom, His Life, and His Church than we had ever imagined. Much more than we signed up for, as we sometimes say.
Of course we didn’t recognize the train wreck as an invitation from God at first, so most of us fought tooth and nail to hang onto what we had during the first year. We misinterpreted almost everything that happened. Most of us felt like God was coming against us in our circumstances, not for us. We did what children do. We wondered if God was punishing us. We blamed each other. We blamed ourselves. We had some good days together. We had some awful days together. We chose sides. We hid. We fought. We cried. We used the Bible as a defense and as a weapon. Sometimes we even tried to love each other, but our version of love was pretty lame most of the time. We thought that maybe we weren’t pure enough or dedicated enough or forgiving enough or working hard enough studying hard enough or praying hard enough. And some people told us those things were so, and in our shame we believed them. So we defended our position by trying to work harder and do more and do better, so that we could keep things going as they had been. After all, what other track was there to being a successful church?
But, as we learned later in the story, others weren’t surprised when it all came apart, and God began to do something very different. Other Christ-followers in our city, not at all affiliated with Bridgewater, already knew that God was going to do something unusual in this church body. Intercessors all over this city had been praying for this little Baptist church in west Knoxville for several years prior to our wheels coming off. God had revealed to them that He was going to do something out of the ordinary in this church body, so they prayed for us – a lot. We were told stories of how some of these intercessors would drive into the parking lot of the church property at night to pray for this congregation. Of course, being staunch Southern Baptists at the time, we have to confess those stories freaked us out – at first. Now it seems so normal and so wonderful.
Eventually, God also began to speak to a few of our members about praying for what was coming. Some in the Bridgewater congregation, who had encountered the quietly revolutionary writings of Henry Blackaby and others like him, began to sense that we were following a path that had little fruit and even less Life, and that God wanted to bring about major changes in how we related to both Him and each other. So, they also began to pray for our church family, quietly and behind the scenes.
So there we were five years ago, running as fast as we could, but going in the wrong direction. However, it seemed to us to be the right direction, since we had so much company on the road. We were purpose driven. We were evangelical. We were sacrificial. We believed the Word. We were compassionate. We were investing in missions and missionaries. We wanted to make disciples. We were passionate about worship. People were coming to Christ. We were taking risks. People were cheering us on as we ran, and we were very sincere about believing we were running alongside Jesus Christ.
But we had missed a crucial spiritual reality as we ran. We didn’t know that the path of living by grace in Christ is never a crowded, five-lane highway. It’s a narrow path, defined for us daily by the Holy Spirit, and not too many find it. The crowds will not eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus (John 6). We didn’t see it that way, so we let the crowd and our culture and the voice of man be our guides and confirmations, rather than the Spirit of God. We didn’t have any idea we were doing that at the time. We were so sincere and meant so well. Most of us were living out of the best of intentions. We had zeal and we knew a lot about the Bible, but we did not know God intimately (ginosko in the Greek), nor did we understand His Kingdom or His ways. That’s an important part of the story too. Of course we were in good company, because even after three years with Jesus, the disciples in Acts 1:6 were in the same place that we found ourselves – clueless about what the Kingdom was really about.
So when it was time, God in His grace let us fall on our face. Only then would we stop long enough to take a look around, to even begin to wonder if He might have a much different journey for us as a church family. He did, but it was a strange, unpredictable journey where He was to become the center and source of everything, instead of us. It was a biblical, Christ-centered journey that was so much about Him that it soon became obvious that it was not going to draw a crowd. We had to eventually come to peace with that reality also, before we could really begin to move forward on this path.
We promise we’ll get to the part about why we are selling our building and moving to an as yet unknown location. Some of you who are reading this have already figured that out, haven’t you?
A Whispered Invitation
So anyway, we fell on our faces - not in prayer, or on purpose - but by tripping and falling. But while we were in our season of lying face-down on the ground, wandering which truck ran over us, some of us “accidentally” began to hear faint whispers of His invitation into a much different journey…a journey of intimately abiding in the living Christ within us. Many of us tried our best to ignore that voice (including the writer of this chapter), because good, solid, conservative evangelical churches don’t believe that sort of thing happens after the apostolic age. But after a while more and more of us began to hear God inviting us to walk a different path than what we had ever known.
It was like we had finally stepped out of the dark forest and onto the path God had for us. But for a long time we just stood still, knowing we should walk forward, but afraid to take more than a few steps because it was a path that we could not predict or control – and one that we sensed would come with a cost that we weren’t sure we wanted to pay. It wasn’t easy to make the decision to walk a spiritual path that we knew many would simply refuse to walk – mostly because it was so different than what the people they loved and respected had taught them about God’s Church and His Kingdom. Facing that fear of the unknown is an important part of the story also. It was actually late 2007 before the elders really came to peace with moving forward.
We didn’t know it, but the journey ahead was going to cause us to die as the church we tried to build, and to be re-birthed as the church that Christ promised He would build.
And as everyone knows, both birth and death are very painful. It was not fun or easy or sensible for this church family to stop running, and to fall down, and to thrash around, and then to be still, and to wait on God, and then to eventually choose to die and to be re-birthed. How crazy. How foolish. How counter-productive it all seemed at times.
By the way, we aren’t being dramatic. The story is actually a bit understated, based on the emotional cost of the journey.
We totally understand that this is the point at which most people check out on such stories. If you’ve made it this far into the story, you’re unusually persistent. Our souls want something uplifting, not more painfully honest reminders of how we are broken. When we read or hear a few words like “messy”, “hard”, “failure”, “deconstruct”, and especially “brokenness” and “death”, our eyes begin to glaze over, and our minds think of one thousand other things we’d rather be doing. Paths or stories that include suffering and uncertainty aren’t very popular in our church culture. Right? We expect, perhaps even demand, that if we do our part then our walk with God will be organized and clean and predictable and impressive – always leading down a path to a better and easier life. Well, at least that’s what we expected. Maybe you and your church family are different. We hope you are, but you’re probably not, since we all inherited the same flesh from Adam.
This Story is Anything But a Tragedy
But, don’t check out on the story yet, because although we have lived through a lot of very hard days, this story is turning out to be anything but a tragedy. After a few years of dying and re-birthing, this has begun to turn into something more wonderful and free and joyful than we could have imagined. Those of us who are still together, as well as those who are presently being drawn into this family, are amazed and delighted by what we are seeing God do among us. It’s getting increasingly free and meaningful as the weeks unfold, and we are experiencing more and more gratitude and praise for the long, strange journey God has set before us. We also realize it will always be an unpredictable, messy journey (because we and the people we reach with the gospel are messy creatures when we live in reality instead of illusion), and we are beginning to loosen our grip on the illusion of control. The reality of grace in Christ is beginning to be even better than our dream. Well, not every day, but increasingly. Some days we take back our control and go back to living from our religious flesh, and we make another mess. Yes, that’s part of the story also.
But the truth is that, in spite of how much we still have to learn, we would never go back to the “successful church” track we were walking before. Doing whatever it takes to draw and keep a crowd now seems more foolish than we can describe. The “stage show” we once knew and loved as church now seems so artificial and superficial and “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” to get Shakespearean about it.
We also suspect that one day we’ll look back on how we are living today, and will feel the same way about some of where we are now. There is so much we have to learn along the journey. We don’t have it all figured out. We’re not there. We’re still very, very much a work in progress as a church family. If you resonate with what you read, please don’t come by seeking to model yourself after us.
We love what God is doing among us now, but each church family is unique, just as each person is unique. Ask God what He wants for your church family. He definitely has a plan for your family – and the truth is that probably looks nothing like the plan you have in your head. His ways are not our ways. Right?
So please, please, please don’t feel a bit sorry for us as a church family because we’re selling a building. Celebrate with us! We’re having the time of our lives, even as we realize that some are watching and wondering what in the world is going on with this little group of peculiar ragamuffins who are letting their building go.
Surprised by Grace
So anyway, along the way, as we lived through seeing the church we loved fall apart, God began to reveal to us the wonders of biblical grace, especially through Paul’s letters to the Galatians and the Romans, and through the very unique gospel of John. We were startled to discover that many elements of biblical grace had little resemblance to the cultural church grace we had always believed and taught as a conservative, evangelical church. We discovered we had been wrong about a lot of things, as we re-examined the Word of God through the eyes of grace.
We always knew that we were saved by grace, through faith in Jesus Christ, but we were very surprised to eventually learn that we knew almost nothing about the day-to-day realities of living in grace. The seminaries and popular Christian writers didn’t help at all with understanding that journey (remember, the road of grace is not a crowded one). We knew that being saved was God’s work (totally) and we thought that being sanctified was mostly our work (with some help from God, when needed). We were the church of Galatians 3:3, the church of the well-intentioned flesh, and we literally had no clue that true grace is all Christ’s work, all the time (Gal. 2:20). We were living in slavery to the law (Gal. 5:1), instead of walking in the Spirit, but honestly we had no idea that was a problem. The law made a lot of sense to us. We knew that the truth shall set us free, but we didn’t know the truth that the law was not for those who were in Christ, but was a tutor that pointed us to Christ by exposing our total inability to be holy and by actually arousing sin in us to make that point clear (Romans 7). The Spirit of Christ was now our guide, not the law of Moses. The law was a prison. We didn’t know that. Honestly, we had no idea that we were slaves to the law, bound up in self-effort, instead of free in Christ. No idea. We thought we were free of legalism, but we were almost totally bound by the chains of human effort.
Oh, but by the mysteries of grace, in spite of our chains God had been at work among us for years anyway, just as He is working in your church family in spite of your struggles with the invisible bondages of the Law and the flesh. We were experiencing God, but nowhere near the fullness of God – the abundance that Christ promised. Maybe you are at that place, also – and are beginning to sense that something is not right. If so, we sympathize, but we promise there is more.
At that time, we simply had no idea what intimacy with God was in the new covenant - the covenant that was ushered in when the blood of Christ was shed for our sins. Nor did we know that we were invited to live from that intimacy moment by moment. We just thought we were here as eternally saved people to learn more Bible truths and work hard for God, to get it done for Him, and to act better than we used to act. We thought the Kingdom of God was more about behavior than relationship. We thought better information and better behavior would lead to better relationship with God and each other – instead of understanding that intimacy of relationship is what God always offers first and foremost. Everything else flows from that relationship.
Much of the messiness of our story is tied to the fact that we had to discover the wonders of God’s grace mostly through our various struggles, wounds, failures and mistakes, both as individuals and as a church family. Yet God used our brokenness as the doorway through which He began rescuing us from the prison of self-effort (Gal. 3:3), and inviting us into the freedom of walking in the Spirit. What a wonderful, loving Rescuer He is!
This was certainly not a journey that we had planned to take, nor is it one that any of us would ever have chosen if we had known the price we were going to pay along the way. If we were God, we wouldn’t have chosen us. Instead, we’d have passed us by and gone with a much more impressive, capable group to rescue. In fact, as we’ve already confessed, every one of us missed the point and fiercely resisted going on this journey with God at some point along the way, and we still return to that resistance some days.
This is true also. This walk of learning to abide in Christ often causes us to look foolish in the eyes of both the world and the Church. Some days we get tired of looking foolish and small. Some days we want to go back to performing for God and each other. Some days we fall down and have to get back up. We’ve got so much to learn, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way, and we will make more, but we can lived with that because we’ve learned that God’s children are always accepted by Him, and the Holy Spirit is a very patient Teacher.
The Paradox of Smaller But Growing
And, just as you would expect in such a strange story, this congregation has said goodbye to many of our dear brothers and sisters along the way. Some of those departures were painful, some were natural.
We’re a much smaller congregation than we used to be, and yet as a church family we are experiencing more growth than we ever imagined. Paradox? Of course it is, but it’s a beautiful paradox in Christ. The kingdom of God is full of paradoxes. We must die to live. We must be broken to be healed. The least shall be greatest. The last shall be first. Those paradoxical truths don’t seem to be very popular in the AmericanChurch, do they? Has the Church bought into the cultural dream of being first and greatest?
So if we believe that being greater and bigger is God’s goal for us, then our simple story will seem foolish or pointless to many dedicated, sincere church members and leaders. We are aware of that, and we understand because we would have felt the same way five years ago. We don’t feel any need to defend our story, just to tell it.
Still interested enough to keep reading about why we are selling our property? You can always skip to the last paragraph to get the Cliff’s notes, but you’ll miss a lot between here and there.
Anyway, about two to three years along our very rocky road, this flock finally began to respond to God’s invitation. We began to choose to take the risks of wrestling with what it means to know God intimately (John 17:3), and to hear God’s voice (John 10:27) and to walk by His Spirit (Gal. 5:25). We’re slow learners, but He is a very patient Teacher.
Now we are slowly learning to share life as a family, instead of relating to each other within an institution. That’s not a predictable, structured way of life. More and more that path involves sharing life throughout each week in various ways at various places and at various times. That revolves less and less around a Sunday worship service or a church building. Sunday worship gatherings are becoming more and more about celebrating what God is doing during the week, and studying and discovering and celebrating the truths of His Word together, as we learn to worship in Spirit and truth. Sunday mornings are no longer the primary place of “feeding” and “growth” for many of our congregation. That is happening more and more in small, intimate discipleship settings, most often in homes or over the breakfast or lunch table or in the car or at the park. We’re learning that real disciple-making happens one-on-one, or in small batches, instead of by mass production. That idea is nothing we get any credit for. We got it from Jesus. We have to admit that we were surprised to find it’s actually true. As we said before, we tend to be slow learners.
Our life together as Christ-followers is becoming more and more simple, but we have been stunned at how God is beginning to speak to us and reveal Himself among this simple community. We’re seeing miracles within relationships and hearts and lives. He’s also beginning to heal our souls through His Word, His Spirit, and His community of grace. The ways we live and relate to each other and the world around us are continuing to change. They are now beginning to look less and less like what most of us have known as “church”, and more and more similar to what we find in the New Testament (which were messy, far-from-perfect churches, as are we). It would take many pages to tell the whole story of what that means for us, and it’s still a work in progress, so we’ll focus the rest of this chapter on what we’re discovering about God’s plan for where we gather.
What About Church Buildings?
So what in the world does all that have to do with why we are selling our buildings? Thank you for your patience. Now that we’ve shared some background to the story, let’s talk about church buildings.
According to God’s Word, the Church is God’s people indwelt by the Spirit of Christ. The Church is people, the body of Christ. Right?
Yet somewhere along the way we’ve unintentionally confused buildings with the Church. Oh, we would never consciously admit that, but our very language gives us away. “Where do you go to church?” “Let’s go to church.” “Are you building a new church?” “Where is your church?” “There’s our church.” "Last Sunday when I was at church..." There is nothing wrong with making those statements, but our words reveal that many people see the church as a location, a building, bricks and mortar. It’s not.
Even more confusing and sad, we often seek to make church buildings uniquely sacred, and they are not. Sometimes we even mistakenly label the building a “temple” or a “tabernacle” or a “sanctuary”. These are old covenant words, from when there was still a veil between God and His people, and we could not live in intimacy with God. That veil is gone now, and so is the temple of stone. There is now no holy building, but instead God has made His people holy. God now dwells in His people, and we are the new holy of holies.
Until recently, we failed to understand how amazingly practical and powerful the grace of the new covenant in Christ really is. We came to salvation in Christ, but still sought to relate to Him day by day as though we were still under the old covenant. The value we placed on the church building was just one symptom of that lack of understanding. But when God breaks through and begins to reveal to our hearts the awe-inspiring reality of His union with us, then everything begins to change. We begin to see with new eyes. And things like church buildings begin to look much different to us. To make them more important than people begins to look like the idolatry that it is.
When Jesus begins to heal our hearts and open our eyes, we no longer see people as trees or the church as a building. It’s just a place we meet, and that particular building is no more sacred or important than our homes or workplaces. The Word of God says that in the new covenant of Christ His people are now His temples. God now dwells in the sanctuary of our hearts, not temples made of stone or brick or steel. To confuse the building with the church is not mere semantics. It is one of the many subtle symptoms that we as the modern Church struggle mightily to understand what it means to be the body of Christ, living in intimate union with God in us.
Most Christians mistakenly believe we primarily worship “at church” on Sunday, with a few professionals (priests?) leading us in music and the teaching of the Word and the sacraments. Yet we are all priests and ministers and we can worship all the time, anywhere. True we have differing gifts and callings, but whenever two or three of God’s children (regardless of their spiritual gifts or what church roll their names are on) are gathered, there can be corporate worship – the Church is together. We fail to see that the Church is just as present and important at the workplace, at the mall, at home, at grandma’s house or at the ball game. What a tragic reduction of God’s Church to limit it to a building or a Sunday service!
The ultra-high priority that we as the American church place on buildings is exposed not only by our language and our emphasis on what happens inside the building, but also by the millions upon millions of dollars we continually pour into building bigger and better church buildings, while in the community around us senior citizens and single moms and their kids struggle to pay the next light or grocery or gasoline bill. The Church can proclaim loudly and repeatedly about how people are our priorities, but in the end our budgets are very revealing about what really matters to us. Right? Didn’t Jesus say that where our treasure is, our heart is also?
So, if we look around the church of Knoxville, where is our treasure? Just asking.
Sure, some church families need a larger place to meet, because some congregations won’t fit in a house. There’s nothing wrong with having a place to gather, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with having a building. We have much liberty in how we live as the Church. But do we really need all these ever-expanding, cutting-edge, multi-million dollar buildings to be the Church? Why do we really build these elaborate structures? Are we primarily reaching for the lost when we build them? We almost always say we are – or at least we said that when we built our new buildings – and we usually have a level of sincerity in those statements. But is reaching more of the lost our only motive or our even our primary motive for building bigger or better? Whose glory are we really promoting when our church buildings are some of the finest and fanciest structures in our city, or when we push our budget to the absolute limits to build or buy a structure we don’t actually need (in any size church family)? And, if we get really, really honest with ourselves, when we build these facilities that are so expensive for us to build AND maintain, aren’t we very often actually aiming for the more well-to-do believers with high expectations, who can pay for our buildings? Would many of them settle for anything less than the best of facilities for them and their kids? Is there sometimes competition with other churches involved when we build bigger or better? Would the Apostle Paul even recognize most of us as churches if He walked into our building on a Sunday morning and took a look around? Would he proudly celebrate what he saw or would he sit down in the floor and cry? We suspect there would be tears if he came into our building…and probably some not-so-fun-to-hear words to follow, knowing Paul. How did we ever get from there to here as the Church, friends?
Sorry about those toes. Ours hurt too.
Again, there is nothing wrong with a church family having a building where they can meet. We’re free to do that if we believe God is leading that direction. But an important question to ask is where the building is on our priority list. Is it a tool or is it a treasure? We have to confess that for our church family the building was high on the list – a treasure. For a long time, most of us couldn’t imagine not having this building. In fact, it was near to being an emotional idol for some of us, even though it’s not even a particularly impressive or fancy building. There are some very good memories associated with being at this location, but even those memories are really about people, not bricks and mortar. We wish that we were the only church that ever placed that sort of importance on bricks and mortar…but it’s obvious we’re not.
We recently spent time with a friend who grieved that his church family had spent a half million dollars on a steeple, while building a twenty million dollar church building. So how does that kind of thing happen in a country where so many children live hungry and scared and alone because their mothers are addicted to crack and the church ignores their plight, because we don’t have time or money to deal with them? Oh, we can’t point fingers or condemn anyone for any of this. We have been just as guilty of wasting God’s gifts on things that mean nothing, just on a smaller scale. If we’d had twenty million five years ago, we’d probably have spent it almost the same way.
When do the hopeless kids at Walter P.Taylor Homes, or AustinHomes or WesternHeights, or the trailer park down the street become more important to the Church of Knoxville than our next “sanctuary” or “education” space? Apparently, we’ve already decided they’re a lower priority, or else they’re someone else’s problem to deal with. Right?
We have to confess that we’ve honestly believed for years that bigger and better buildings in good locations were necessary to reach people for Christ. So about ten years ago this congregation borrowed a truck-load of money and added some bigger and better buildings, including a first-class basketball gym, instead of seeking other creative ways to deal with an increase in attendance (like church planting or use of homes or renting of facilities on Sunday mornings, for instance). We thought it was the only thing to do, in order to grow God’s Church. We just didn’t know any better, and we didn’t pay any attention to those who did.
As an aside, pastors, elders, friends, we are in great danger of leading people to chain themselves to an idol when it comes to church buildings. It seems productive on the front end – and it may even draw a crowd and some new believers (God works in all situations, often in spite of us) – but in the end we often bear bitter fruit instead of sweet, when we make buildings and their maintenance a priority for our church family. Often the tail ends up wagging the dog. When we build to a certain size and financial realm, we unconsciously know we have to do whatever it takes to keep enough crowd to pay for it and maintain it. That may very well limit the spiritual paths you are willing to risk walking because you know that some paths have a much higher price than others. It’s hard to drag a fancy building with us up the mountain, when God invites us to come up. It’s much easier to drop everything and go when we don’t hold on to much. Just a thought.
Do We Really Need Bigger and Better Barns?
Yet, here is a very important question with which we’ve had to wrestle. Does God really need our prime locations and our excellent building facilities to draw people into His kingdom, and turn them into disciples of Jesus Christ?
The Church grew rapidly and powerfully for the first three centuries with very few buildings other than houses. The money the first century Church gave was primarily invested in ministry and people like widows and orphans, not bigger buildings. The Apostle Paul took up a lot of offering, but we have no record of him or anyone else in the New Testament taking an offering for a building fund. Read the Bible. It’s in there. We’re not making this up. We promise. Check out the books of Acts and 2 Corinthians as a starting point.
The only stories of God’s people investing in buildings were in the Old Testament, under the Old Covenant, where the holy of holies was in a tabernacle or temple, not in God’s people. And the people gave extravagantly and joyfully to build those sanctuaries. We believe that we should give just as extravagantly and joyfully to help build the new sanctuaries – God’s people – and honestly it doesn’t take very much of a building to do that. In fact, a home or playground is often more effective.
So we have to publicly confess that we were wrong, confused, deceived as to what is really important when it comes to where we meet. We should never have tied up our resources in bigger buildings and debt, instead of people. That’s a hard revelation to admit publicly. OK. That’s not totally true... It WAS a hard truth to admit. Now, it’s very freeing to admit it – and to know that in grace we were never condemned by God for our foolishness and our sin of idolatry – but instead are simply invited to let Him lead us into His priorities for us.
There is no condemnation when God’s children fail. There’s only invitation. When we believe God about His acceptance of us, we no longer have to hide or defend ourselves. We just tell the story of what God is doing, and when the story includes our mistakes, those failures just further emphasize the glory of His grace and love for us.
Who Do We Think We’re Fooling?
Let’s let the cat out of the bag even more. We also realize that we as the Church of Knoxville are not fooling the world around us. Not at all. They see our true priorities and our true treasures. How can they not? Our priorities and our treasures are literally and publicly cast in stone (and brick and steel)! Many of us build islands or castles, disconnected and protected from the world around us. It’s hard to be salt and light when we hole up each week in our impressive, holy castles and let the drawbridge down on Sunday mornings to invite in the hurting masses that we don’t have time or money to reach during the week. Has anyone noticed that, as desperate and dark as the world out there is, they are not knocking our doors down on Sunday mornings looking for something better? Perhaps our plan of building impressive castles filled with dozens or hundreds or thousands of strangers are one of the reasons why the percentage of believers in KnoxCounty hasn’t changed appreciably in decades. A building never reached anyone’s heart. Love, expressed through relationships, does that. So why are we investing so much in buildings?
This might be a crazy thought, but while you’re reading, at least consider it. We build bigger and more impressive church buildings hoping to reach more people, but what if in fact they are really a barrier to reaching most people? What if they intimidate or disgust or somehow keep away the majority of the lost and the marginalized (you know, those folks that Jesus drank wine and shared meals with, much to the chagrin of the religious folks who gathered in the temple each Sabbath) – and instead they primarily attract those who are already church members in other congregations. Tragically, the vast majority of church growth in our country is now limited to baptizing our own kids (which is good), and attracting sheep from other congregations (which is not), because we know there are hordes of sheep looking for a better menu of consumer options for their family – so we build the “campus” to meet those latest consumer demands. Right?
How did the Church come to be so much about a place and a pastor, instead of the Person of Jesus Christ? Surely we aren’t the only ones asking that question.
How did the AmericanChurch come to be defined by bricks and mortar, and by a senior pastor position that doesn’t even exist in the New Testament? Yes, you read that correctly. You won’t find one man teaching and leading and shepherding an established congregation by himself anywhere in the New Testament, but that’s a different discussion for another chapter. But it’s also an important part of our story, so if you’ve gotten this far in the story, don’t take our word for it, check it out for yourself in the Word of God. When you find a man in the New Testament who functions anything like the senior pastors of most evangelical American churches, please let us know. You won’t find him, but it might be a very valuable biblical experience to look for him anyway. It was a very revealing experience for us as we searched for a definition of that role in God’s Word during the time we thought we were preparing to begin a search for a senior pastor. There aren’t any senior pastors types in the NewTestamentChurch. None. Nor are there any church buildings. Hmmm. So just how did those two things become such essential priorities for “Bible believing” churches, like us? The short answer is that we have both a clever enemy, who knows how to distract us from Jesus, and a flesh that demands to be satisfied by the visible and the tangible, not the mystical presence of invisible God in us.
Let’s be clear. We’re not saying that it’s wrong to have a big building or a senior pastor. We have much freedom in this new covenant in Christ. Our church families have freedom to have buildings or senior pastors if God leads us to do so. But have we even asked if that’s where He’s leading us? Or do we just assume that buildings and pastors are critical to the life of the church because that’s all we’ve ever seen or known – and we can’t imagine anything else? How is it that almost none of our institutional churches are patterned after the New Testament Church (we say they are, but they are not as any serious student of the New Testament will tell you) – and at the same time we see so little differences in the lives of Christians and those who are not believers in this country? We say our focus on buildings and leaders is a cultural necessity, but is that a real justification? And is it creating a more healthy Church in America? Why do Christians lead this country in rate of divorce, according to the Christian researches? Is there something broken in the cultural manners in which we live as the Church? We think that there is abundant evidence that something is broken – but it threatens the status quo to admit that or to examine that. It leads to very hard questions – and to very strange journeys.
But be encouraged. If it can begin to change here, it can begin to change anywhere.
We can say this with full confidence: God’s Word leaves no room for any leader or any location to be central to the life of His church. When that happens we begin to live as just another human religious institution. The Church does not rise and fall on leadership, regardless of what the experts say? By the way, who made them the experts anyway? If our churches are dependent on a building or a leader, then we can be absolutely sure from God’s Word that we’re not on God’s best path for us – no matter how big or busy things are in the church. But in grace, God never leaves us or condemns His children when we wander off on our own trails – so we don’t have to be defensive, nor do we have to live in shame if one day we wake up discover that we have chosen to walk the wide, crowded path of the flesh. That discovery is merely an invitation from God to return to Him.
So take away the nice buildings and everyone’s favorite music and the man who inspires the flock every week when he preaches – and would most churches even continue to gather together? Take away any of those three things, or if you’re really crazy, take away all of those three things for a few weeks. Then you discover pretty quickly where sharing in knowing and following the living Jesus fall on our priority list. We discovered that we, along with most of the modern church, were enslaved to good things like music, and pastors, and buildings, and programs, but those good things took precedence over knowing and sharing the Life of Christ. By the way, the Apostle Paul calls such “good” priorities, wood, hay and straw. They actually get in the way of knowing Christ intimately, when they are not out of an abiding relationship. They are part of the “nothing” Jesus talks about in John 15.
How many times have we heard a building program referred to in a sermon as “The Promised Land”? Oh come on, admit it. You’ve heard it, or done it. God’s Promised Land for His children is walking together in grace and freedom and joy in Christ, not building a bigger or nicer building. What if we stopped settling for the pitiful substitute of a visible Promised Land made of bricks and mortar, and instead began taking the risk of really crossing the river into the land of milk and honey! That invisible Promised Land is sharing in knowing God intimately and learning to love Him and each other extravagantly. That sort of Promised Land reaches and changes lives and communities, one by one. Walking in the Promised Land has nothing to do with a better building or a great location, or even the size of the crowd. Absolutely nothing. Of course no one can convince us of that, but the Spirit of God. We wouldn’t have viewed this discussion as valid five years ago. So if it makes little sense as you read it – we understand.
But what about reaching people? Don’t we need bigger buildings and bigger congregations to do that? There is nothing intrinsically wrong with bigger, but don’t ever confuse it with better. Check out John 6, where Jesus invited the crowd to eat His flesh and drink His blood. At that invitation, the crowd left. Jesus didn’t run after any of them, nor did He change His invitation in the slightest to draw some of them back. He just continued on with His little flock of a dozen men.
Would the popular teachers of Christian leadership have labeled Jesus a leadership success that day? How would these “experts” have advised Him? “Jesus, you came on a little strong with the eating your flesh and drinking your blood thing. That was actually sort of creepy. Can you soften and simplify your message and your delivery, because you obviously missed a great opportunity with all those thousands of people who were drawn in by the bread and the other good stuff. Let’s plan to go back to the feeding plan next week, because that seems to work better. And we probably need a couple of full-color mail-outs to the community to let them know there will be more miracles at the next service. And let’s cut back on the flesh and blood stuff and re-focus the message on what they could grasp – the bread. The most important thing is for us to keep as many as possible coming back, then maybe they’ll eventually catch on if they hear you often enough.”
Peter probably gave Him some advice much like that about how to get the crowds back. Jesus probably smiled and patted Peter on the back and told him to go jump in the lake. In love, of course.
Maxwellian leadership theory sort of breaks down on that day with Jesus, doesn’t it? Maybe in God’s eyes, drawing and keeping a crowd is not such a big deal. That’s not to say that God can’t work in and among a crowd. He has done that and will do it again. But if you study the crowds in the Bible, they most often didn’t get it. In fact, they often opposed or totally misunderstood what God was doing – even as He stood right in their midst. The same crowed that praised Jesus one week, screamed “Crucify Him!” the next. The individuals and smaller groups in the Bible were much more prone to get it. Right?
The least shall be greatest. What to do with that? What if God really does work most powerfully to reach people though small, intimate bodies of believers whose deep relational love for each other simply amazes the lost world around them? Jesus said the world will recognize us by our love for one another…not by the size of our crowd or the resume of our pastor or the quality of our worship center. Jesus chose twelve disciples, not five hundred. Has the Church been deceived into buying into the American business model, where bigger and faster and fancier and busier are always better? Perhaps we’ve confused excellence of performance and increasing numbers with God’s plan for spiritual growth. Didn’t Paul mention that the path God had him on looked and sounded foolish to the world, and much of the church? What does it mean when the Church’s measures of success look almost exactly like the business community’s?
And do not confuse busy-ness and hard work and lots of activity and increasing numbers of people with God’s kingdom advancing. How do we reconcile our church goals of doing more and going faster and being bigger with these words of Jesus:"Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. "Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. "For My yoke is easy and My burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30) How much rest is your soul finding in Jesus these days, friends? Is your yoke easy and your burden light, or are you worn out with life – including your life within God’s Church?
It wasn’t meant to be this way. Deep down inside you know it’s true. Listen. There’s a voice in you that is whispering and inviting you to rest and to lay down the burdens you’re carrying for Jesus. He never put them on your back. Never.
OK. Some of you are tired of this story, or are at least bothered by the tone of it. Is this bigger story we are referring to true or are we somehow exaggerating and speaking out of bitterness, ignorance or even envy? It’s a fair question and one that should be asked. Everything should be tested. Hard questions are so powerful in coming to grips with reality, with truth. Remember, it is the truth that sets us free, not feeling good about ourselves.
We have to admit that we love the Church, but we are very disappointed with us. We also believe that we must begin to speak the truth in love about ourselves to each other – and perhaps confess this truth to the world around us (by the way, they won’t be surprised at what we confess). We are pointing this finger at ourselves, because we are all the Church, and because we believe that God is inviting the Church we love to turn and to change!
We’ll say that again. We believe that we – the church we love – must change if we want to experience the fullness of God, instead of the fullness of a building or a bank account. We must change if we want to experience the rest of Jesus – and the fruit of the Life of Jesus – instead of our busy-work.
Yes, this story has teeth. Sorry about that, but if we told it any other way it would just be more political spin or marketing. We have teeth marks also, in painful places. The truth often draws blood, and that’s healthy if it leads us to Spirit-led change. Let’s not take ourselves so serious that we’re above laughing at ourselves, or telling on ourselves, or even drawing a little blood if that’s what it takes to get us to face reality.
God’s Church Is NOT an Institution
One more thing before we come to the point of why we are selling our church property. We have also slowly realized along this crazy journey that the church is NOT an institution, as most of us have been taught. According to the Word of God the Church is a family and a body and a flock and a bride. Orphanages are institutions, and they always are a poor substitute for family. So we have been wrestling with learning what it means to live as a family, instead of as an institution.
And guess what? We’re slowly learning that you measure growth and success much differently in a family than you do in an institution or a corporation. An institution defines growth primarily through numerical measures, such as bodies, buildings and budgets – and completion of tasks. Those things may have their place in a family, but they are not in any way key indicators of success or health. Loving relationships are the measure of success in a healthy family. Everything else has its place, but is secondary, especially in God’s family.
The size or quality of a family’s home has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of relationships. You can be a tight-knit, loving family in a one-room shack. Ask the majority of the non-industrialized world how their family lives. You can also be a tight-knit loving family in a million dollar mansion. It doesn’t matter the size of the home, if relationships are the focus.
So, we’ve slowly come to realize that church buildings, whatever their size or location, are very much secondary to authentic, Christ-centered relationships and lives.
God can use any building or house, or even a tent or a shade tree, to provide a place where people can gather to share worship and fellowship and teach the Word. Building extravagant buildings is most often about us, not Him. Right?
If you find that hard to believe, test it against God’s Word. Does the New Testament have one mention of a church family building a building? No. Are we free to purchase or build buildings? Absolutely. But what priority does God place on elaborate buildings for His church? Apparently, not so much. There were hardly any church buildings until Constantine, and the Church seemed to grow just fine without them, even in the midst of severe persecution. In fact, the same thing is happening today in other countries. So we find it very hard to believe that God leads His people to invest a large percentage of their resources into buildings. That would not be very consistent with what’s on His heart – which is His glory and the people He loves.
“But in our culture, you have to….” Yes, we know all the church growth reasoning. We’ve bought if for years, too. It sounds good, but most of those excuses are not true or necessary if the congregation is led by the Spirit of God. Right? We’ve seen friends in Africa worship God in a way we can only dream of in a building made of sticks and leaves. Jesus was their focus, not the structure around them.
Jesus Christ was enough, whatever their surroundings.
We want to grow up enough to live in that reality. We want to come to the place of believing Jesus is enough, and of taking other people on that journey, and the building is just not that important in such a journey.
So here’s the most important question for us believers. When will Jesus be enough for us? Yes, we said that we would sound foolish to many.
So why is Bridgewater Church selling and moving?
OK. Enough of the background of our story, and the not-so-subtle message about our heartache over the mistaken priorities of us, the modern Church. Why are we selling and moving?
After a year of prayer and discussion and debate among our church family, we have come to a place where we firmly believe God is leading us to put our property up for sale, and to prepare to begin meeting in a new, as yet undefined, location. There are some finances involved in that decision, but they are secondary in what we believe God is doing. There are a variety of emotions associated with selling a building that some of us have gathered in for decades, but in our spirits we are settled and excited about the direction we believe God is leading us. One member shared that in her heart she was certain this was God’s direction for us, but she was still waiting for her head and her emotions to catch up.
We believe God is leading us to trade this building in this prime location for new opportunities to express His love and His grace through investing in people and relationships. We believe God is driving home the liberating truth that His passion is people, not buildings – and to leave this location is a visible example of His priority for us. He is inviting us to invest the minority of our resources on buildings and the majority on people. Perhaps one day we’ll even grow and mature to the point that we won’t need a building at all. Perhaps.
This is an exciting place to stand, by the way. We don’t know where we’re going next, but we know God does. That’s starting to be enough for us.
We are preparing to sell this property and move to a new location, perhaps to several new locations. We plan to get totally out of debt – and to spend some portion of the proceeds of the sale on a gathering place that is adequate, but smaller and more efficient, and more appropriately designed for the participative style of Bible teaching and worship that is common to our gatherings. It probably won’t be a fancy or impressive building, but perhaps we’ll get the opportunity to be very creative with where we gather. We’ll see.
Right now we are in the dreaming stage as we seek God’s specific direction and timing. We are seeking to come to a place of being open to anything He wants to do. When we step out from that place as our starting point, then we will walk in peace, no matter where He takes us.
Perhaps we’ll purchase some houses and use them for offices and ministries, and have a simple, larger structure somewhere else for meeting on Sundays – but rent it out the rest of the week for some other use, so the property doesn’t sit empty all week. What a waste of resources most church buildings are during the week.
Perhaps we’ll purchase an existing church property.
Perhaps we’ll remodel a commercial or industrial building into something adequate for a gathering place – right in the middle of the day-to-day market place.
Perhaps we’ll buy a few acres or a small farm and build a house or barn big enough for us to gather each week, and maybe have some horses and cows and a garden so the inner city kids who are part of our family can experience and enjoy them, along with the rest of us. Wouldn’t that be a fun family environment?
We don’t really care where or what the building is like, because we know that God already knows where we are going - and we simply want what He wants. What an adventure!
In fact, our hope is that any future buildings and locations will be such a minor focus that people will barely notice them. We hope they notice the loving, ordinary people who reflect the Life of Jesus Christ in them, the real Church. We hope that most of the people who come for the first time to Sunday worship have already spent a lot of time in a home group, so that the building or location has literally nothing to do with them being attracted to this church family.
We also hope to use a large amount of the resources from this sale to birth new ministries, and to support existing ones, and to invest significant amounts from the sale of this property into missions, however God leads. That will be much more valuable (and fun) than building more education space. We can teach people in homes, or in shifts, if we need more space eventually. That seems to us to be better stewardship of the resources God has given us.
One of our dreams is to play a part in founding a private ChristianSchool and LeadershipAcademy for inner city kids in Knoxville – and then to one day send them on to college with full tuition –and perhaps see them come back and make a deep impact by leading within this community. We’d much rather invest in those children, than in an impressive church building in a great location, that we use only one day a week. We’ve already had the privilege of having many of the kids in the AustinHomes housing development become like family to us over the past eight years through the Lighthouse at AustinHomes. We are now dreaming about what else God might do in the years ahead in the lives of these precious children that He has brought into our hearts and our families. Their stories are heart-breaking, overwhelming, and seemingly never-ending. They are true treasures, just like the kids at Walter P. Taylor and WesternHeights and other places of concentrated poverty – where there are few people who are willing to step into their lives to make a difference in their future.
We dream of eventually funding or assisting churches and church plants in Knoxville and perhaps Atlanta and perhaps Africa, and wherever else God might lead.
We dream of helping single moms with legitimate needs get back on their feet.
We dream of supporting reconciliation between races and denominations and communities and families and individuals. We dream of reconciling with our own pasts, whenever God allows.
We dream of continuing to send and support missionaries.
We dream of supporting ministries where the Spirit of God is leading His people into battle against the spiritual darkness of this present age.
We dream of continuing to support ministries that reach the folks no one else wants, the very people that Jesus would have hung out with: the poor, the prostitutes, the convicts, the crooked businessmen, the drug addicts, the mentally ill, the alcoholics, the girl who lost her reputation through sexual encounters, the boy who ruined his life with violence, and even disgraced college football players.
We dream of seeing Jesus Christ continue the unpredictable journey of creating a community and culture of people who know God, trust God, hear God, and give generously of themselves and their resources as God leads – out of grace and love, instead of duty and law.
We dream of seeing a culture of Christ-centered grace and truth and compassion and love eventually emerge among God’s Church in Knoxville.
We dream of seeing more and more people come to a place of intense brokenness before God that allows their souls to begin progressively healing, as they walk an increasingly intimate journey with God and each other. That doesn’t happen until we drop our defenses and stand naked and broken before God, agreeing with Him that our souls are horribly wounded by sin – both our sins and those of others.
Our dream of becoming a joyful people is coming to pass, but we dream of that joy of the Lord continuing to increase.
We dream of the Spirit of God drawing the lost into His kingdom through our day-to-day lives, not through our buildings or programs or Sunday services or cute full-color mailings. Those things have their place, but to depend on them instead of the Spirit is just plain sad. We say that from our own experience of depending on those things.
We dream of discipling our children, as well as the new believers God sends, to intimately know Jesus Christ, and to walk in freedom and grace as the body of Christ, instead of living out life in the institutional prisons of religion, where visible things like impressive buildings become an important marker of success.
We dream of His kingdom coming and His will being done, right here in us, as it is in heaven.
We have come to believe, with a sense of great sadness, that the modern AmericanChurch has become largely about places (church building), pastors and programs – much more than about the Person of Jesus Christ. Essentially, the story of why BridgewaterChurch is selling our property and moving can be summed up as this – God is powerfully at work to revolutionize this little congregation, and we now believe that people are what matters to God, not buildings or programs or performance measures. We believe church buildings are a very low priority in God’s kingdom. They are simply a tool, like a hammer. We believe that God is leading us to trade a church building and basketball facility, for a myriad of creative opportunities to see Jesus Christ work through this family to build relationships, heal souls, make disciples and minister to people around this city and the world. We recognize that there is nothing any more sacred about this building or this location than any other building or location. So, we are very excited about selling our property and downsizing to a new location (that is smaller and more efficient and more appropriate for our family). We are even more excited about continuing to invest deeply in the journey of making disciples of Jesus Christ by investing in people more than in bricks and mortar. Please don’t mourn for us as we sell and move, but celebrate this new freedom with us. We invite you to pray for us to have the courage to continue hear and to trust God every step of the way, even as He continues to write this very unusual story into our extremely ordinary lives.
Thanks for being interested in our story. We trust that somehow God has spoken to you through our feeble attempt to share a glimpse of what He is doing in our lives.
If you want to share your thoughts with us, we would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.