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Christian Clichés: The Church is WHO We Are, Not WHERE We Go


As I was driving to my grandson’s baseball game several years ago, a message on an Evangelical church’s sign caught my attention. It said, The Church is WHO We Are, Not WHERE We Go. I chuckled as I read the sign, saying to myself, and I bet everyone who attends this church really believes this message is true. Evangelicals love their clichés. This one, in particular, presents a worthy, thoughtful sentiment, but does it represent how things really are in most Evangelical churches? This cliché suggests that the “church” is the people, and not the steeple. Is this really true? I think not.

I am an old, crusty curmudgeon these days. I have seen a lot of “church” in my lifetime, and, even now, I continue to pay attention to what churches say and what they actually do. Rarely do their words match their works. Christians may want to believe that the “church” is the people, but their actions suggest that buildings, steeples, and land are the church, and they are willing to fight to the death to hang on to their material possessions.

We are two thousand years removed from when Jesus walked the streets of Jerusalem and later died on a Roman cross. His early followers met in the outer court of the Temple, in homes, and anywhere two or three of them were gathered together. The early church didn’t own buildings or land, nor did they have bands, programs, colleges, seminaries, or paid pastors. The Apostle Paul, the ministerial gold standard, was bivocational. He didn’t have a 401(k), medical and dental insurance, paid vacation, or a church-provided automobile. I roll with laughter when a pastor says his church is just like the church of the first century. Really? In what way?

Clergymen are religious professionals who are paid to preach sermons, visit the sick, bury the dead, and wed the clueless. Much like their counterparts in the “world,” clergymen have insurance, vacation benefits, and retirement plans. These humble men of God are also given special Federal and state tax breaks that are available to no one but them. These tax breaks save ministers hundreds and thousands of dollars a year. And because the churches they pastor are considered by default to be tax-exempt, pastors can also buy automobiles, books, computers, and anything else related to the “work” of the ministry and not pay sales tax on their purchases. But wait, there’s more! as TV pitchman Billy Mays would say. Clergymen also receive the same tax benefits as business owners/self-employed people, and, if they so choose, they can opt out of paying Social Security taxes. There is nothing pastors do — not even their preaching and teaching — that remotely resembles what is recorded in the gospels or the book of Acts. Whatever the early church might have been, it died centuries ago and no longer exists. In its place is what is called the ”institutional church” or ”organized Christianity.”  Evangelicalism, both at the church and denominational level, is a hungry machine that requires people and their money to fuel its work.

So, the church is certainly the people, but is also buildings, lands, and material goods. I live in an area that has a static, aging population. Dreamers speak of the days coming when our downtown areas will be bustling once again with people and commerce and churches are filled with people worshiping the Lord. These wearers of rose-colored glasses believe rural Ohio communities will return to the glory years of the 1950s. Millions of dollars are spent revitalizing local communities, yet nothing changes. Old people die, young people move away, and some dumb-ass business guru thinks we need one more pizza place. These eternal optimists never seem to see things as they are. I love listening to their magnificent plans, but I am a pessimist — also known as a realist — and I know that our glory days are behind us and all we can do is maintain what we have. One local politician suggested building a multi-million-dollar tri-bridge across the confluence of the Maumee and Auglaize rivers. Throw in some bike trails and dog-walking parks, and young professionals will want to stay or move into the area because of our wonderful amenities. I ask, and exactly where are they going to work? And does anyone seriously believe that someone is going to relocate here just because we have a fancy bridge? Stop with the nonsense, and see things as they are, and not as you wish-upon-a-star hope they will be.

Local churches are also in numeric and financial decline. More than a few local churches are on life support, managing financially from bequests from the estates of dead members. There are a hundred or so Christian churches within a thirty-minute drive from my home. Many of these churches are struggling congregations that would be better off if they closed their doors or merged with other churches. Why do they continue to hang on? Simple. The church may, to some degree, be the people, but it most certainly is buildings, lands, and stuff.  When faced with closure, churches will go to great lengths to hang on to their buildings. In their minds, they cease to be the church if they don’t have a building.

There are a lot of Methodist churches in rural Northwest Ohio. Most of these churches have small attendances, and are often pastored by men or women who pastor two or three churches at a time. Some of these churches are just a few miles away from one another. If, as the aforementioned cliché says, the church is the people and not their buildings, why don’t these small, struggling, near-death churches merge? Why? you ask. They would have to give up their buildings. Additionally, some of these churches are sitting on thousands of dollars. This money is used to keep the church afloat. If they merged with another church, that church would get all their money! No, we will not merge, churches say. Our communities NEED us! I thought the church is the people, and not buildings and lands. Jesus and his disciples did not concern themselves with this world’s goods. Shouldn’t twenty-first-century Christians follow in their steps?

I have witnessed and been part of countless church fights over material things. Several churches I pastored were sitting on large sums of cash, saving it for . . .? Well, no one could ever tell me what they were saving it for. In their minds, the value of their churches was reflected by buildings and bank account balances. These followers of Jesus would love to see attendance increases, but if that doesn’t happen, at least they have a beautiful near-empty building and lots of cash on deposit at the local bank. First Baptist Church — Making Jesus Proud for 200 Hundred Years! The pews are empty, the baptismal is dry, but, hey, did you see our fancy state-of-the-art kitchen and air-conditioned dining hall? Praise God!

Evangelicals love to present themselves as people who are above the fray; people who are devoted followers of Jesus; people who walk in the steps of the early church; people who are, thanks to the saving grace of God, morally and ethically superior. However, when the façade is ripped away, what we find is that Christians love this world every bit as much as atheists, agnostics, humanists, and other non-Christians. Their love of this world is reflected in the churches they attend; churches with expensive, ornate buildings; churches with overpriced, incestuous (helping fat sheep get fatter) ministry costs; churches with paid staffs, complete with all the benefits white-collar workers enjoy in the business world. These churches are often sitting on thousands and thousands of dollars. One banker told me, Bruce, if I told you their names, you be shocked by which churches in town have hundreds of thousands of dollars on deposit at our bank. He knew the church I pastored didn’t have two nickels to rub together. We literally lived from offering plate to hand. In the eleven years I pastored the church, I never received a regular weekly salary. For a while, the church took up a weekly offering for me and my family. This was great on the weeks people loved my sermon, not so much when they didn’t. This is not to say that we weren’t “worldly” too. We were, spending thousands of dollars and man-hours on our buildings and property. We may — in my opinion — have done “church” better than the Methodists and Presbyterians, but we loved the here-and-now too.

The cliché, The Church is WHO We Are, Not WHERE We Go, might be credible if it were lived out day by day by Christian people. But, it’s not. A nearby mainline church with an attendance of twenty-five or so people recently dropped $250,000 on repairs and upgrades to their building. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if churches merged? More people, more money, more outreach, right? Instead, dozens and dozens of local churches are hanging on until the last person with a key dies or Jesus returns to earth. Granted, churches — which are private clubs — are free to do whatever it is they want to do. Most Christians derive psychological benefits from belonging to a church. Being part of a Christian club gives them a sense of purpose and meaning. Who am I, then, to criticize what they do or don’t do?

I would agree with this sentiment if it wasn’t for the fact that many churches believe that they are making a difference in their communities; that they are indispensable; that if their church buildings were no longer there, local communities would suffer. It’s this bigger-than-life attitude of churches with which I have a problem. There are seven churches within five miles of my home: three Church of God, one Methodist, one Catholic, and two generic Evangelical churches. If all of these churches closed their doors tomorrow, community life would go on without a hitch. Members of these churches would certainly feel loss, but the rest of us? Ho hum, off to work we go. I see no meaningful imprint on the community from these churches. None. And that’s fine as long as these churches are just places for weekly social gatherings and fellowships. It’s when they take on in their minds a larger-than-life view of themselves that I begin to take a closer look at what they actually do compared to what they own and spend their money on. From my seat in the atheist pew, it sure seems to me that, yes, the church is the people, but those people sure are focused on buildings, bank accounts, padded pews, and all the creature comforts life can afford. It seems — dare I say it? — that most churches are in no hurry to pack their bags and leave this world of earthly sorrow; that having the next church BBQ, bake sale, rummage sale, ice cream social, and fried chicken dinner is far more important than caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and caring for widows and orphans.


Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    I really find it funny when churches have super nice buildings with a full service coffee shop two sanctuaries, concert lighting and sound, actual good graphic design(very rare in christian circles) yet there are homeless walking the streets, kids couch surfing and a whole bunch of other problems they could actually use that money to help solve. What a waste

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    Becky Wiren

    I agree. We shouldn’t have any homeless people, because these empty churches should be able to help. All that money and all that empty church space, used for vanity, not God.

    I have another thought about our area. The big drawback is that we are 50 miles from downtown Ft Wayne and 60 miles from downtown Toledo. Neither of these cities is considered a real mecca by young urban professionals, but they still have some jobs and some positives, with zoos, museums, event venues. I’ve griped to my husband that if Bryan was only 30 miles from either city, I would have a decent job.

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    Bit of a side issue but re: churces closing. It’s probably different in the USA but in the UK, churches are closing by the hundred each year. What I observe is that when that small rural chapel closes, the handful of elderly who kept it open for so long, don’t transfer anywhere else. I’ve had older folk in my village who haven’t been to church for many years say to me, pointing at a church which was sold off to a carpet warehouse or as a private home many years ago, ‘That was my chapel, I was so sad when it closed.’ A fundy told me that was because they weren’t True Christians, but by the law of averages, some must have been according to fundy rules. So when you describe lots of small churches clinging on by their fingertips near you, Bruce, I rejoice. It never works here that people transfer and make new ‘powerhouses for the gospel’ as two churches that amalagamated their congregations here promised would happen. (It didn’t of course, average age of members 65+, they don’t have any idea how to entrap aka evangelise outsiders.)

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    All the research surveys show that religious participation and affiliation are shrinking in the USA. Most of my coworkers don’t go to church. We are in NJ suburbs of NYC. Many non-Catholic churches rent their facilities to Spanish-speaking or Asian congregations. My daughter’s ballet school is space rented from a Lutheran church. Most churches rent space to preschools and groups that meet during the week like Toastmasters, AA/ALANON/GA/GAMANON etc. Some churches in our area have been torn down, the property sold to developers. One sold to an Indian cultural center and Hindu place of worship. The Catholics still manage to have a church in each town, though several of their K-8 schools have closed in the past 20 years. Only the mega-Catholic schools survive, and they’re known as being sports academies turning out top athletes (my son was recruited in 8th grade and we told him no way – my husband is a math tutor and he says the academics are inferior to our public school).

    I was talking with a friend the other day about how Philadelphia is growing. Old neighborhoods are being gentrified as college students leave small towns to attend college in Philly and after graduation, they stay. Same in Nashville where I grew up.

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    Greg Beck

    You also need a catchy name. So and so Methodist church, St. Pauls Lutheran church, Evan Mennonite church, just aren’t cool names. You need to be Xperiance church, Living Word, [they didn’t last long], Emerging Streams, The Rock. And you must go out of the country for mission work because it just isn’t cool to help an actual neighbor.

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    so true about small churches clinging to the building, but some also cling because they believe they are being doctrinally pure. my inlaws spent 40 plus years in the “one true church” as they called it-never more than about 20 people at any given time. they also dumped over half of my mother in laws inheritance money into this place and wound up broke at the end of their lives because they were basically paying to keep this one church open. they refused to merge and close because they believed they alone had gods truth and they would be punished for leaving said truth.

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    I sooo agree, my brother! Gray used to say that: “America would fall if it weren’t for this church!” So caught up in his own importance

    I wonder if he feels the same way now that he’s not the pooh bah there anymore but his son is

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    Very persuasive, before I read the article, I thought that the building and assets of a church didn’t matter much and that the meeting of like minded people was their true identity. Consolidation does seem like a rational course of action in rural areas where religion is declining with oldsters dying. I can understand it is natural for humans to be provincial. Not only that, every church has its own style and customs. I’m not sure why they can’t share buildings though? Maybe it happens, though I doubt it.

    I’m not sure what the solution is for rural America, but churches themselves are a blight. They dilute the tax base of any area they exist. An ornate building with a high roof is an energy hog as well. Buildings that are only fully occupied on Sunday are wasteful as well.

    This got me thinking, I recall a church in Pontiac was sold and opened as a night club and some people were up in arms, many clergy in the area did brush it off, that once the congregation had moved out the building was a mere shell and could be appropriated for another purpose.

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    Troy –
    That place in Pontiac was GREAT!!! My friends and I went there a bunch. The space was fantastic as a dance club, and I’m sure it brought in a TON of money for the city. A good use of the building, and the fancyness added character.
    Just like St Andrew’s downtown that was turned into a concert hall and had some of the best alternative groups play there.

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    I’m in a suburb of Detroit. Small bedroom community, mostly residential and light industrial, with the normal strip malls and whatnot. Within a 1/2 mile radius from my home there are FIVE different churches. My complex has one on each side, and one across the main road. Add another half mile and there are 3 more! Several of them have large pieces of land that aren’t used for anything, and one of them – a Catholic church – has a school that isn’t open anymore. For a small city that relies a lot on property taxes, these non-taxable spaces are very bad. The only one of all 8 that actually utilizes their facilities anywhere near well is the JW Kingdom Hall that has three congregations using one building and is busy every day except Friday when they clean the place and mantain the modest grounds.
    Of the 8 facilities, only two are the same Christian denomination (Catholic). Methodist, Lutheran, JW, Ukrainian Orthodox, a Muslim mosque, and one Baptist masquerading as “non-denominational” Buildings sitting unused for anything but occasional worship services, none of them providing charity or community public services that I’ve seen. Apartments or houses would be so much better in those spaces.

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    I am amazed when I go back to the Nashville area and see all the dozens and dozens of churches. Drive around the countryside about an hour out if the city and you’ll find these tiny churches with 20-30 cars in the parking lot on a Sunday morning. It’s really fascinating that 1/4 to 1/2 acre of land plus a building or 2, and a parking lot. You’ll see a sign fir a Missionary Baptist church, then one for a Presbyterian church, and a Nazarene church, and some other kind of Baptist church….all dotted along the countryside between farms. And of course the congregations won’t combine with a neighbor that’s the “wrong” kind of Christian church – heaven forbid!

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    Barbara L. Jackson

    I agree completely with the tax problem all kinds of counties and municipalities are having. In a lot of big cities like Denver Colorado we desperately need affordable housing. It would be better if we could get more from old church buildings or get part of their land and build affordable housing on it.

    Some religious organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous do help people.
    I have heard some Sikh Temples let homeless people stay on their temple grounds. This needs to be verified.

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Bruce Gerencser