The assignment: build a free standing tower at least one foot tall out of drinking straws and tape. When I heard the assignment, I knew we would do well. I had little confidence in my ability to build a stable structure, but I knew that my partner, my fifth-grade son, loved to build. He started building pyramids out of Legos when he was three. He and his sister once devised a car out of K’nex, (plastic Tinker-Toys). I knew that he would excel at this assignment.
I wasn’t surprised when he immediately started piecing straws together. I could tell that he had a design in his mind. He knew how to make the structure stand. In a matter of minutes, our tower surpassed the required twelve inches. I thought we could kick back and watch other people struggle, but my son started unwrapping more straws. I looked at his eyes and I realized that he wasn’t the least bit satisfied with a stable structure; he wanted to build the biggest tower in the room!
Egged on by my friend and pastor, who was working with his daughter on the other side of the table, my son proceeded to build a straw structure that exceeded his own 62 inch frame. Our tower didn’t have a classic design but it stood on its own. I watched with pride as other parent-child teams tried to surpass the elevation of our tower. A few came close, but none succeeded.
When we completed our tower, I noticed that others had taken different approaches. Only a few focused on height. Some had spent more time on aesthetics, their towers were ornate. Others spent more time recreating architectural artistry with their straws. Most had been satisfied to surpass twelve inches and stop.
In spite of their diversity, each tower shared a few common elements. As per the assignment, drinking straws comprised the primary building material of each tower. While drinking straws are good for drinking, they are not the best raw material for construction. This influences the second commonality; even the most well constructed towers were temporary. As students placed their projects together on a table, you could see the structures sway with the air in the room. You didn’t need an architect’s eye to recognize that these structures were short term. Finally, the structures lacked substance. The straws provided a framework for the towers but they couldn’t support any additional weight for multiple floors or additional rooms.
The unsteady towers reminded me of a passage in 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, Paul introduces a construction metaphor to describe how a church should be built. Paul does not address the brick and mortar construction of a physical plant. Instead, the apostle focuses on the spiritual development of the congregation. First, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the church must be constructed on Christ, the only worthwhile foundation (1 Cor 3:11). Then, the apostle points out that the Lord will evaluate the quality of material utilized in building up a congregation (1 Cor 3:13-15). He extends his metaphor by listing diverse building materials that might be employed: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw (1 Cor 3:12).
I know that drinking straws weren’t included in Paul’s list, but the straw towers at my son’s school brought Paul’s imagery back to my mind. It occurred to me that many pastors and ministers have a straw-tower mentality when it comes to building a church. Whereas Paul encourages long-term construction with quality material, the contemporary church often gravitates toward temporary construction with sub-par materials.
Arrogance and ego inevitably stall construction in a congregation. Some pastors approach the church like my son approached our tower. They want to build the biggest church in their city or in their state and they want to build it fast. Driven by competition, they press to make their ministry the biggest and best. Ignoring God’s specific assignment for faithfulness (twelve inches) they tax their resources, (financial, physical, and spiritual), to accomplish their ambitions. Unfortunately, in their haste to grow bigger, they employ shoddy materials. Rather than cultivating committed followers of Christ through discipleship, they construct a crowd by employing the latest gimmick or fad. While these ministries may flourish for a season, they will inevitably falter under the weight of their own growth much like my son’s lofty straw tower.
Apathy and laziness also stall construction in a congregation. Where some pastors allow ego to outstrip God’s call, others hide their personal indifference behind a veil of humility. They say that they do not want to make a name for themselves, which is an honorable goal. Unfortunately, they seem to have little concern with making the Father’s name known either. Like the students at my son’s school who surpassed twelve inches and stopped immediately, these pastors typically do just enough to get by and earn their paycheck. Their congregations wither, not from growing too big too fast, but rather from staying too small for too long.
Show and glow is also poor material for congregational construction. Some of the students took this approach with their straw towers. They bedazzled them with pink paper and colored flags. The decorations improved the aesthetics but did nothing to aid the quality of construction. Similarly, some pastors are consumed by their church’s appearance in the community. They fret over what people think of their congregation. Therefore, they build the church on appearances. They spend more energy on marketing than discipleship. Focus on show and glow results in churches that sparkle on the outside. Unfortunately, the exterior sparkle cannot conceal the dull haze on the inside. Eventually, people recognize that the church is all show with no go.
Imitation and simulation rarely offers stability in congregational construction. I noticed that many of the straw towers looked similar. Granted, with minimal resources options were limited. However, it became obvious that several students liked their neighbor’s design more than their own. Pastors regularly fall into the same trap. Rather than seeking God’s direction for their congregation, they try to fashion their churches into the image of the nearest successful neighboring congregation. Like cookie-cutter homes we often see cookie-cutter churches. These pastors appreciate the success of others and decide to use a pre-existing blueprint for construction. Unfortunately, following the same congregational blueprint rarely translates into congregational stability. Churches are unique. Their leaders must recognize that God has provided unique material to shape each congregation.
None of these approaches do justice to the long-term congregational construction that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Paul’s description should force pastors to conduct an honest analysis of the material they use to build their congregation. They should continually evaluate their personal motivations for ministry. Pastors should constantly ask:
What am I building?
How am I building?
Why am I building?
Will this building last?
These questions should keep pastors from building unstable straw towers and instead enable them to assemble sound, healthy churches that will stand up to the Father’s inspection.
Kristopher Barnett is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in Biblical Languages (2001) and a Ph.D. in theology with a concentration in preaching (2008). His dissertation was A Historical/Critical Analysis of Dialogical Preaching. His undergrad work was completed at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas with a B.A. in Communication (1997).
Prior to joining the Christian studies faculty at Anderson University, Dr. Barnett served as pastor to three different churches; Forestburg Baptist Church (TX), Ridglea West Baptist Church (TX) and most recently, East Pickens Baptist Church (SC). Prior to pastoral ministry, he served as youth minister at two churches and did a youth internship at another.
Kris Barnett is the author of What Now?, a companion guide to the Bible. He is a member of the Evangelical Homiletic Society and has twice presented papers at the EHS conference (Wake Forest, NC and Birmingham, AL). Dr. Barnett enjoys filling the pulpit for local churches and serving in an interim role for churches seeking a pastor.
Dr. Barnett is married to Kelly, who is a graduate of ASU with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in psychology. They have four children, Kenzie, Karsen, Noah, and Kassie.