earthen vessels, East Africa, and the gospel
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To Build or not to Build

At some point in the church planting process most churches will want to build a building. In almost every case, the cost of building can present a young congregation with one of its first sizable challenges. When people are poor or property and building materials are expensive, the challenge is more acute. Here in Tanzania it seems the difficulty in building church buildings runs cross grain to what everyone expects a church building to be.

big church

A beautiful church building for $170,000

High Expectations

It seems that the Tanzanian modus operandi is that good and important things should be dressed up to appear good and important. Weddings and baptisms should be huge. Family visits are celebrated with a feast. Pastors should be relatively well dressed. And church buildings should be big and beautiful.

The converse also seems to be true. If the pastor regularly appears to be struggling to take care of himself and his family, it causes the community to doubt his ability to pastor. Likewise–as we are now hearing more frequently in Usagara–the humble condition of our building reflects poorly on the church’s reputation. It is assumed that a good church would gain enough of God’s favor for a proper church building. For many of our neighbors, the condition of our tent in Usagara is a billboard which reads, “God does not approve.”

the tent in Usagara

the tent in Usagara

Challenge 1: Poverty

If it wasn’t for the fact that they aren’t affordable, nice church buildings aren’t bad things in themselves. The dilemma is just that we can’t afford to build the building what we believe the church deserves. Even if 100% of the offerings of all five Tanzanian churches went towards a new building, it would take almost 30 years to save up enough money (and no, loans for this aren’t available now).

It is the collective expectation for nice buildings that makes going without a proper building inconceivable.[1] We may propose that churches can flourish without expensive buildings, but winning that argument may not be worthwhile.

Challenge 2: Dependence

Other denominations spread the cost over many congregations or use money making schemes to fund projects. Even then so many churches (not to mention businesses, schools, and the government itself) depend on foreign aid. This is where churches in America (and probably other places too) have stepped in to fill the gap.

Church construction in Sengerema

Church construction in Sengerema

The upshot is that there are many nice church buildings around. Praise God for all that has been accomplished for the sake of His name! One side effect of all that generosity is that we have unwittingly reinforced the expectation that church buildings should be so grand that they aren’t affordable. “Every other church has a big building…,” so they say.

Even though God is certainly advancing His work through these gospel partnerships, nice church buildings don’t make spiritually mature churches. Maturity would require that the saints receiving aid should themselves be as committed to the gospel work that motivated the relatively enormous contribution they are benefitting from. The challenge is this: we need to work hard in discipling saints and training disciplers so that spiritual growth can keep up with the expansion made possible through gospel partnerships.


Perhaps some day the body of Christ in Tanzania will be able to afford what it believes the church of Christ should be adorned with. Until then our partnerships with Tanzanian churches involves building good church buildings that, we hope, will not dwarf the spiritual growth of the church itself. We pray that the church would place its efforts into building up people before their buildings and that God rather than the foreigners would be seen as our Provider.

  1. This is probably an example of how our consciences are trained differently than the consciences of our Tanzanian co-laborers. Understanding and training your conscience is the subject of an excellent new book available here.  ↩


1 Mark Snoeberger { 09.17.16 at 5:30 pm }

Matt, great article. It really helps us to see the cultural issues as they weigh on the implementation if the Great Commission there.

As I read I couldn’t help but think of a parallel here in the US during the 1940s, when the popular perception of what a church should be (a public dispenser of beneficence and social goodwill) so shamed the fundamentalists (who minimized this aspect of church life due to their view of the Kingdom) that a group of them altered their theology and practice to match public perception. Whether they did the right thing is still a matter of huge debate. The latter group clearly won the day and have over the years done more to extend the reach of the gospel than their stauncher counterparts, but at significant cost.

Obviously the parallelism is not exact (it couldn’t be), with huge cultural differences that I can’t even begin to fathom. I’m just wondering how one might go about balancing the goals of (1) correcting cultural expectations of ecclesiology to match biblical ones (and potentially limiting the reach of the gospel) with (2) maximizing the reach of the gospel (at the cost of delaying the corrective of the health/wealth-based ecclesiastical errors that you mentioned)?

I would enjoy hearing your thoughts on this issue, as I have no doubt you’ve wrestled with it. Thanks Matt. Keep up your good work there in TZ.

2 Matt { 09.20.16 at 11:47 am }

You have rather astutely stated the horns of our dilemma. :-I

In the post’s footnote I suggested that expectations about how and for what purpose we build church buildings is an issue of conscience. It may be more culturally than biblically informed, but my impression is that people really believe that the MO is the *good* and *right* way before God. To your (1), this rules out any short-term solution that runs roughshod over people’s consciences.

We take heart in the hope that consciences can be recalibrated (JD Crowley shared some good anecdotes of this in that book I cited). But, for now, the idea that big buildings may be distractions to planting healthy churches has neither *conviction* nor *consensus* among our Tanzanian brothers. There may be intellectual consent among a few, but that’s not enough to sway popular opinion in a church planting movement so that it affects the way we evangelize and organize a new church.

We have had many conversations about ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ that could lead others to what we believe is more biblical church planting tactics. But if we are talking about true biblical *conviction* that passes from one person to the next (i.e., builds *consensus*), then the only way forward is slow. It leads people all the way from biblical principal to its practical implications, uncovers the bankruptcy of the alternatives, and trains people for obedience (for us it means that we invest more into the Bible Institute for this purpose).

This makes your (2) the more immediate concern of the two. How do we minimize the risks of propping up cultural Christianity while we endeavor to expand the reach of the gospel? I don’t feel like I’ve got a great answer. But this is what we’re moving forward with:
(1) We remind ourselves that benevolence like church building has both historical precedent and biblical warrant behind it.
(2) The current MO–for all it’s weaknesses–gains us and our co-workers an audience. For now, the alternatives couldn’t even do that.
(3) At the risk of sounding pragmatic, we have a short history where we’ve already seen a viable church materialize out of some evangelism that we would probably strike down as unbiblical. It was ugly, but God is undeniably doing something.

As we adopt a practice that potentially reinforces unbiblical cultural expectations, I see two great burdens for the success of the gospel advance: First, our biblical teaching must equip people to obey in real-life scenarios and then reproduce their obedience in others apart from us missionaries. Second, our effectiveness as cultural outsiders, albeit biblical counselors and teachers, rides on our ability to dialogue and negotiate with our Tanzanian counterparts with cultural sensitivity. This means that we may be Bible teachers and preachers, but we are also just as much advocates, negotiators, and prophets.

Thanks for your comment. It’s good to be able to dialogue with you once again!

3 Mark Snoeberger { 09.20.16 at 6:23 pm }

Thanks Matt. That is very helpful. Fascinating issue that illustrates Qohelet’s rubric that there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s great to see you finessing the solutions of history and hopefully improving on them. We’re praying for you back here in the States as God uses you to move the work forward over there.


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