(Houses Made by Human Hands was first published on 8/11/2011)
In my last blog I mentioned a church I once served as pastor where the people just wanted me to keep the church open until they died. Of course, these good folks meant the church as they had known it. This included a marvelous edifice with beautiful stained glass windows. We spent over a third of our budget each year just on building maintenance.
I once pastored another church with a budget in the hundreds of thousands of dollars but not one penny of budgeted money went for any missions or ministry beyond that local church. And there was very little money even for ministry with its own people. A half of the budget went for salaries (another subject for another time) and approximately 40% went for building maintenance and mortgage payments. No wonder the church had no money for mission and ministry beyond the walls of the building.
Over and over the Bible tells us that God does not dwell in buildings made by human hands. Even Solomon, the builder of the first temple in Jerusalemrecognized this truth. When he was speaking at the dedication of this beautiful structure he prayed to God: But how could God possibly live on earth? If heaven, even the highest heaven, can’t contain you, how can this temple that I’ve built contain you? (1 Kings 8:27 CEB) And yet, we often act as though God dwells in the church building in a way that he does not anywhere else.
Perhaps the fact that we often refer to the building as “the church” is part of the problem. Most of us who have been around congregations for a while have observed those who didn’t want the children to “destroy the building.” I once had a group of ladies who got upset with me because I started a new young adult Sunday School class that was meeting in the church parlor. This church was dying for lack of young families. But apparently to them a nice parlor that was almost never used was more important than the new Sunday School class.
Jesus visited the temple and he sometimes attended synagogue in a building. But He performed most of his ministry outside religious structures. In fact, if his experience inNazareth, as reported by Luke in chapter 4 was indicative, he was least effective in changing lives within religious structures.
It has always been interesting to me that the early church didn’t begin to erect buildings until the fourth century, afterConstantineconverted to Christianity. More than one historian has suggested that this is when the wheels began to come off the church. After three hundred years of unprecedented growth things began to deteriorate. My old seminary professor Findley Edge used to tell us this was when the church began to be populated with the “unregenerate,” those whose lives had not been transformed but who had joined because it was politically and socially advantageous.
It is not that building are necessarily wrong. I don’t know anyone who insists that we worship under a brush arbor. But the tail should not wag the dog. At the church I served with the beautiful historic building, almost every discussion of ministry focused on how we might use our building. The first time I met with the leaders of the church I asked them to name the church’s greatest asset. Everyone present agreed it was their building. Before long I decided it was the church’s greatest liability.
Buildings can be a great asset but should not eat up all our resources. There are ministries that truly require a building. I’m just not sure that a covenant community of Christians require one to worship. There must be a better way.