As I drove past my church one evening I anticipated the lights to be on and someone there doing something. Alas, the church was darkened but for a few low lights around the perimeter. Driving on I realised that most churches I know are like that - dark, dimly lit and quiet during the week. It reminds me of some local monuments in my town which are - dark, dimly lit and quiet.

This begs all sorts of questions when contemplating what a church building is for and how members see the function of their building. Have our churches become monuments instead of mission stations? We are often heard saying “the church is a hospital for sinners” but how many hospitals do you know that are shut down during the week?

MONUMENT OR MISSION STATION? Danny Bell argues that many churches have become nothing more than immovable monuments. PICTURE: Jim O'Connor/www.sxc.hu

"Have we in our enthusiasm to get home to heaven forgotten the fundamental reason for the church’s existence in the community? Are we not supposed to be a shining light and a beacon to guide the lost home? How will the lost ever find us if all we do is open our doors once a week? Have our churches become monuments to ourselves and those who have died instead of hustling bustling mission stations always looking out for the living and lost?"

Have we in our enthusiasm to get home to heaven forgotten the fundamental reason for the church’s existence in the community? Are we not supposed to be a shining light and a beacon to guide the lost home? How will the lost ever find us if all we do is open our doors once a week? Have our churches become monuments to ourselves and those who have died instead of hustling bustling mission stations always looking out for the living and lost?

How can we tell if our church is operating more like a monument than a mission station? Below are a set of characteristics of monuments and mission stations that you can apply to your particular church and see how you stack up.

We know from experience that monuments are:

• Immovable. In monument cultures you only have to go back into their histories to show that moving, selling or getting a new one is fraught with conflict and difficulty. That’s because monument thinkers can’t conceive of doing what they do anywhere else but on the site the monument was erected;

 Visited infrequently. Monuments don’t usually get a lot of activity but are only visited on special occasions. Those who engage in this infrequency usually feel that once the visit is over, they have done their duty. The doors are locked and the gates are barred until next time;

• Sacredness of the object emphasised. Those who are in a monument culture are often heard emphasising that it has been dedicated and how sacred it is. They forget that the sacredness is not in the bricks and mortar but in the people who go there;

• Looking back focus. Monument thinkers mostly look back to how things used to be or how things were done back when. It is more to do with preservation than innovation. Forward thinking is very hard to come by in a monument culture and is usually not tolerated;

• Surrounded by ceremony and tradition. A monument culture is heavily guarded on all sides by a way of doing things that must be preserved at all costs. Deep and long held traditions are seen almost as sacred as the monument itself and like it are immovable;

 Honours the dead. Monuments are usually about honouring the fallen and dead. In monument cultures there may be plaques in the gardens, on the walls or on benches dedicated to members who have passed on or to honour those who were once “with us”;

• Unchangeable. Changing or removing something from a monument is akin to a criminal offense. The reason for this unchangeable culture is that the monument itself has become a personal object of worship and serves best those who are attached to it in some familial or historical way;

• Narrow in focus. Monuments are erected for a specific cause or reason. Stray outside that cause and you will land yourself in hot water. Other kinds of ceremonies or even other traditions are not tolerated in a monument culture. ‘Get with the program’ or else ‘get out’ is the clear message. The needs of the proverbial few outweigh the needs of the many in a monument culture;

• Doesn’t perform any other function. A monument is just that - a monument. There is no other function other than a place to come, remember, do ones duty and walk away. It serves no other purpose other than the one it was designed to serve – to remain an icon of what was and will always be.

Mission stations, on the other hand, are known for these characteristics:

• Can be moved. A mission station is not bound to any place or time. It can even be mobile and sees the horizon as its only obstacle. In fact, movability and taking it to where the people are is a key feature of a mission station culture;

• Visited very frequently. Because of its nature, a mission station will be frequently used because it is not seen as a part of one’s lifestyle but as a lifestyle. The frequency of use is based on real needs and those needs being met which is what makes it so popular;

• Has no sacred objects. There are no sacred cows in a mission station. Everything is sacrificed - money, time, objects, space – all are dispensable to its guiding principle which is the sacredness of life. Mission station thinkers will move heaven and earth to accomplish meeting this ideal;

• Looking forward with anticipation. If you are a part of a mission station culture you will quickly realise that they don’t do a lot of dwelling on the past as important as that may be in some instances. You will soon learn that it’s all about now and the future and plans are always around this focus;

 Surrounded by common sense and what works. Nothing is off the table in a mission station culture. Adaptability and change is what they are about. There are no special rites of passage for relatives or the popular – if you have gifts, they will be used no matter what your status;

• Honours the living. Mission stations are all about the living. They recognise there is nothing that can be done for the dead and move on to the living. The fact that people are dying at a rapid rate inspires mission station thinkers to move with haste and urgency to their task;

 Embraces change. A mission station will change, adapt and offend if necessary for what it believes in if that means positive long term outcomes. It is versatile and has the needs of the many which outweigh the needs of the few as its basis;

• Broad in its focus. Mission stations are based on the needs of others and so this necessitates that it be broad in focus. It cannot afford to be a stingy, penny pinching or a conservative culture when it comes to meeting needs. Where there is a need, it must be met – end of story;

• Can perform many different functions. Adaptability and a willingness to re-look or re-think the way things are done is a hallmark of the mission station. Mission stations are not bound by time, resources or space. They will be seen in all types of circumstances in all kinds of cultures seeking to breach the gap between those who have and those who have not what they are offering.

So here we are at the end of the world. What better time to re-assess our churches and see if they are up to the task of transforming into mission stations from a monument culture. I’m a big believer in holding ground but that’s only part of the Gospel direction given to us by Jesus. Are the majority of our churches in your city monuments or mission stations? Maybe take a drive past your church at night this week and ask yourself, “Do I belong to a monument or mission station church?” It could be the beginning of something fantastic!

Danny lives in Bunbury, Western Australia. He has been a pastor, chaplain, family court mediator and counsellor. He is currently editor a Men’s Ministry Magazine called 'Trench Mail' and is leading a church plant called Lion Hearts which focuses on attracting men. His passion lies in making the church relevant to the church’s largest unreached people group - men.