Today we had church at home with our visitors, Anna's parents, because the service we were supposed to attend was canceled due to the weather. It is cold, windy, and raining. On the phone, the pastor told me that he didn't think anyone would show up on this morning.
This sort of thing brings up a number of issues in my mind. For one, the church could have had their little roof sealed long ago. It is not a question of money; it is a question of priorities in spending available money. At this point, the church has chosen to spend on festivals and funerals. At some point, they may decide that having a dependable structure is part of the sustainability of a worshiping community. They do desire both things--to have a better meeting space and to celebrate the special events of a community's life; yet, when pressed, they are unable to resist certain cultural expectations in the immediate in favor of considerations for the future. This is difficult. For many years, many North Americans have been spared of having to choose between these polarities. Perhaps the economic downturn has exposed that life everywhere still entails these decisions.
Second, it is up to the local church to make these decisions. Western money has often been used in places such as Mthatha to build structures for local worshiping communities. This money precludes the local church from developing the decision-making capacity they need in order for long-term survival. This money may make the church seem to spring up in the immediate, but it impedes their ability to thrive in the long-term.
In this sense, then, foreign money is less related (at least positively) to local church realities than some of us might assume. In the west, we sometimes discuss within the local congregation the morality of adding on to our current worship structure or building a new one. This is a good debate. However, arguments against building on the grounds of moral considerations are often fueled by comparisons with the church in the majority world. How can we build when what we have is already far more than others do not?
I would suggest that standards for local church buildings should be considered within the means of the local church community. Don't build a building that your congregation cannot afford. Don't go into debt. One author suggests that it is not wise to build a building for the church that is more extravagant than the homes that the majority of its members live in. A church building should serve the needs of communities. If the building itself becomes an impediment to worship, to service, to the simple act of meeting together on a consistent basis, it is time to make a change.
Of course, the local church is also not on its own--it is part of the global church. But what we assume is good for the global church may not in reality be. The local church everywhere has to decide what is good for itself under the scrutiny of the gospel. As communities of the gospel, northern churches can impact or inform the decision-making processes of southern churches, and visa versa. This is, in fact, both inevitable and an obligation. Yet it is our obligation not to put a "stumbling block" in anyone's path on our way toward realizing our full freedom in Christ.