If you’ve been following church news over the years, you’ll know the ongoing sexual revolution has fundamentally transformed the mainline Protestant denominations as their ultra-liberal leadership has pushed for ordaining gay and lesbian clergy and giving blessings and marriage rites to same-sex couples. But the radical views of the leadership have not always represented the view in pews, leading to schisms and legal wrangling over control of denominational resources, especially church property.
For example, the United Methodist Church, instead of repenting of their sexual immorality, at least approved an exit plan for churches wishing to disaffiliate. Although the process is slow, this year, 5,458 churches left with their properties intact. (However, 25,500 churches remain within the UMC.)
Meanwhile, in the Episcopal Church, conservatives have departed and formed the rival Anglican Church in North America. Some Anglicans left their historic properties behind and started afresh, while others decided to fight for them through the court system. In just one diocese, in Fort Worth, 60 properties worth $100 million were in dispute (see here). The financial stakes can be high when church property is involved!
I’m reading a biography of T. Austin Sparks written by Rex G. Beck called Shaped by Vision. Sparks was an essential influence on Watchman Nee, held to a Keswick view of sanctification, and has influenced many within the “organic church” movement. He was faced with his own leap of faith regarding church property, and I think he set a good example.
In 1926, Sparks was pastoring Honor Oak Baptist Church in London. The church was growing, but he began to have misgivings about denominationalism, finding it too small and restrictive compared to Jesus. “The day came when I saw the Lord Jesus, and all these other things were like nonsense,” he explained. “All this church business was like little children playing at going to church. All this dressing up in clerical clothes, oh, how silly it was” (Beck, Shaped by Vision, p. 43). Sparks began to believe that being a denominational minister was contrary to the truth of the church as “One body by One Spirit” (p. 46). Jesus’ one Body was bigger than the Baptists. It is bigger than any one denomination. And as a member of that one Body, Sparks was called to minister to any other member within it, not just to other Baptists. He become convicted that he had to leave the Baptists in order to effectively minister not just to them but to every other believer.
As the congregation studied the New Testament evidence together, many came to the same conclusion, and Sparks asked the community to rethink their relationship with the Baptist Union (their denomination in the UK). Some members wanted to stay within the denomination, but others agreed with Sparks and wanted to begin functioning more along the lines of the New Testament.
However, they discovered that the congregation did not own the church property. Rather, the Baptist Union did. They could have tried to fight in the courts to keep it, or they could have stayed in the building and fulfilled their ministry vision under the auspice of the Baptists, but neither of those options seemed right. “Based on their sense from the Lord, they decided to take a step of faith and determined to vacate their current premises in the near future, even though the Lord had not yet made another facility available to them” (p. 48). The congregation met together in September and decided to hold their last meeting on November 29. After that, they would vacate the premises. They did not know where they would go, but they chose to do it peacefully.
Two things happened after they took that step of faith. As Beck relates, “Funds came in from several anonymous donors adding up to around £900. At the same time, the premises of the former Forest Hills School, which the congregation had been seeking to buy as their ‘hostel’ and which had, up to that point, been tied up in legal straits, suddenly was free and available for purchase” (p. 49). And so, on December 1, the congregation walked down the street and held their first meeting in the new facilities, and what had seemed at the time like an impossible leap of faith became a seamless step of faithfulness to the Lord.
Are you contemplating a big step of faith regarding church property?
Maybe you sense the Lord leading you to plant a church but have made no moves to do that because you don’t know where you would meet. If so, trust the Lord because He can be trusted.
Or maybe you’re faced with choosing between keeping your current property or being faithful to the Lord. If so, remember that God doesn’t need your buildings. He’s asked people to leave buildings before, and the Lord Jesus will reward your faithfulness if you do:
“And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields because of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life” (Matt 19:29).
The financial stakes may be high, but the eternal rewards are higher.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.