Some while ago the small Anglican church I attend moved out of its building and into a space primarily used by a local Seventh Day Adventist congregation. At first this troubled me. Why couldn’t my church afford its old space? Why would God move us from a comfortable building He had provided in the first place into a church space that was clearly not our own?
Because of variation in tradition and belief, our new host church requested we not use wine during Communion. Also, due to the new room’s shape we no longer had space to kneel at the alter. Both of these factors required us to change our order for Eucharist, a shift I didn’t initially appreciate. We also began holding two services to fit everyone in the smaller room. In my mind, these were inconvenient adjustments to a church and a tradition I had come to love.
Why would God change something that seemed so good?
But as time passed, God revealed a certain beauty in this transition. I adjusted to the changes, and recognized that holding lightly to such traditions maintains a healthy perspective in our faith. But perhaps more importantly, it opened my thinking to how we “do” church, not just as a community of people, but in terms of the building itself.
While many may have offices, run schools, or open homeless shelters, often large church buildings sit vacant during the week. It seems odd these massive spaces exist almost entirely for one day, sometimes just a single morning.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I love both the Church as a people and as its many buildings. The Christian world is dotted with giant cathedrals and churches that I like to believe are in and of themselves a form of worship. There is a yearning for God present in the halls of these great structures, a unique peace and presence.
People have spent entire lifetimes constructing these spaces.
Entering into these places, I want to linger. Even many non-Christians still recognize that there is something special within these halls. These buildings help me realize in a new light that our God is one who transcends not only our limited conceptions of him, but one who outlasts generations and empires. They provide an effective and real symbol to how God is working his redemption through us and through our worship.
However, I think even more can be said of a church that doesn’t have a building. Like the Israelites wandering through the desert, on this earth we are a people without a home.
We cast our eyes out over this world, but before long we turn our heads upward in desperation. We see too much pain and wrong and brokenness. For every missionary in the field there is another unreached people. For every loaf of bread given to someone out of love there is another going to bed hungry. For every change of heart there is another sin.
Even though Christians work tirelessly for the redemption of this world and the bringing about of Christ’s kingdom, we also recognize the fundamental brokenness of our reality. We see and understand the need for a new heaven and a new earth; we cry out for Christ’s return.
This is why I am thrilled by the idea of a church that meets in a movie theatre, a school, a home or a community centre; it captures so well the mission of who Christians are. The Church is to be in the world, but not of it. We don’t need large steeples to justify our existence, to bring meaning and a sense of pride to the impact of our work. We should be content, and in fact overjoyed, to redeem the “regular” spaces of this world. To transform the every day into something holy. To break down the separation of secular and sacred.
Certainly not every church can take up residence in a movie theatre, nor should they. But I think we should be very careful in how we approach new building projects and calls to support the purchase of land for large buildings that could remain mostly empty. I hear too many stories of churches losing land or buildings as attendance drops, or as money dries up, or as the congregation becomes ensnared in some legal battle.
Consider our purpose as God’s people. More than some distant light on a hill, we should be a burning torch in the alleyways and streets of these places we live.
While Christians should recognize a building for every congregation is a beautiful expression of God’s presence in this world, we don’t need a physical space to live authentically as a Church. In fact, we may do better without one.
In the same way the Israelites carried the Tabernacle from place to place, we too should feel secure in the setting up and the tearing down our tents of worship, because we know that our God does not dwell in a temple of stone, but in the hearts of His people.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Paul.