Building for the Past?... Build for the Present!

Published in INSIGHT - Fall 2016
By Norman Jameson

During our 40th wedding anniversary trip to Europe this spring, my wife and I visited the underground bunker being restored by enthusiasts at Schoenenbourg, France. This impressive fortification is one element in the defensive Maginot Line built after World War I to keep Germany from invading France ever again. 

Named for French Minister of Defense Andre Maginot, the line was a 450-mile long series of bunkers, barriers, artillery casemates, and passive impediments along the border between the two nations. The Schoenenbourg bunker is one of the few remaining intact vestiges of that earnest effort. 

It housed more than 600 soldiers who lived 100 feet underground in a virtual city equipped to support them for months. Food, supplies, and munitions moved through the mile-long system on a rail network. Telephone communications connected outside spotters to inside decision makers. Redundant air pumps and filters kept the atmosphere below ground inhabitable. 
There were 45 such bunkers in the line to provide live resistance to a potential invasion, along with 352 casemates and more passive barriers such as angled concrete pillars. 
The Maginot Line represented a massive commitment by France even as it struggled to recover from devastating war, but the perceived threat of a restive Germany and centuries of cross border infiltrations and alliances merited the investment. 

The problem was, the Maginot Line was built to defend against a past threat. It was built to stop infantry, open-air troop carriers, and thin-skinned battle tanks of WWI experience. 
When Germany invaded France in May 1940, they flew over the Maginot Line, rolled around the end of the line through Belgium and through the Ardennes, which Maginot deemed too impenetrable to require fortification. Germans blew past passive defenses with their fast and powerful Panzer tanks. In seven weeks they were in Paris and the French government had surrendered. 
French intentions were right. Their execution was good, but they built to defend against issues and fears of the past without accounting for future threats that would be significantly different.
This is not an uncommon situation.

In current times, the music industry built a line against pirated CDs while online music distribution flew over the defense. 
American automakers defended themselves against each other’s paltry products, while higher quality cars invaded from overseas. 
Furniture factory owners in North Carolina defended themselves against unions and lower profits by clinging to antiquated production methods, while Chinese manufacturers built efficient new factories from scratch.

 Are you crouching behind a Maginot line at church, clinging to former processes, programs and patterns of staffing while your consumers simply roll around your red brick bunker on their way to the mall, soccer practice, or golf course?

Is your church defending itself from the perceived threat of an encroaching culture while young people who easily learn to navigate it find your bunker increasingly irrelevant?
What are the elements that formed the defensive anchor, the Maginot Line, of your church?

Was it your weekly calendar that anchored family life in your congregation? Sunday mornings were sacrosanct. Maybe Sunday evenings, and Wednesday nights with church dinner and educational classes also were “protected.” Nobody missed a deacon or elders meeting.

Local schools checked church calendars before scheduling school events.

But now an expectation of perfect attendance creates a laugh, if not resentment. If you do not pay attention and schedule against a school event, your room will be empty. 

Embrace the idea that yours is not the only game in town. How can you encourage your young people to be active representatives of your faith and your church in their schools? Can your church adopt a school? Could you host the football team for their pregame meal? Can you hold teacher recognition?

At one time your denominational affiliation, proudly identified on your church sign, provided an identity that told people what to expect inside your doors. That logo represented comfort and consistency, but now people understand comfort and consistency are not enough. Fast food hamburgers are consistent from chain to chain, but they are bland, and in many cases, basically meatless. 

That logo does not mean the same things because denominational bodies that once provided connectedness, training, literature, identity, guidance and consultation to pastor and staff, training for lay leaders, wisdom and mission sending vehicles are losing their ability to provide those services. Now, with the easy assistance of the Internet, you can form networks, find resources, answer questions, and connect support groups that fill in the missing pieces left when denominational entities fragment. 

At one time you built comfortable facilities to provide worship and education spac, but now those facilities will not defend your congregation from those who consider buildings a drain on the budget, rather than an asset to reach people.

Maginot’s bunkers were built for a purpose: to house soldiers to defend the line. Consider utilizing your facilities for several purposes.  Partners for Sacred Spaces, which helps aging churches in significant structures find creative ways to meet the bills and suggests renting rooms to community non-profits such as theater groups or self-help groups. 

Steele Creek Church of Charlotte (NC) is turning its facility into a “HopePlex” and loaning space to several groups which will host a language academy, an arts and theater academy, and after school tutoring and recreation. 

In the past you staked-out a Maginot Line of clear biblical principles to defend your territory, but changing mores put you on shaky ground and you preach with caution against things that once were commonly considered “sins” even by non-churchgoers. 

Try preaching “for” more things and “against” fewer. The next wave of people moving across the plains of your community want to hear a positive message of how the Gospel will change their lives. They want authentic relationships, and helping them to establish a relationship with Jesus is the best news you can give them. 

Maginot’s defense was ineffective because it relied on massive, permanent structures. Society is fluid, changing, moving, and flexible. Some new churches start without permanent meeting places. Social networks let people know where the church will be meeting next week. Older churches shrunken to a few remaining members are combining with other churches, or giving their buildings to a new, ethnic church and the seed of hope lives on in them. They are not overwhelmed or defeated, but they flexed and adjusted and are victorious.

Maginot’s lesson is that reliance on a single approach, or a defense established to meet yesterday’s threats will be overwhelmed by the real challenges of the future, but a flexible approach with an eye not to defend a territory but to usher in the Kingdom will win in the end.

Norman Jameson is a partner with the Columbia Parnership. He can be reached at