[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]
Recently, I moved with my small family to a town in the Welsh marches. Our home is just around the corner from the local parish church, and sometimes I wander into the building to feel the cool, peaceful space on a warm day or to exercise my vocal chords and enjoy lovely acoustic of the vaulted ceiling. I wandered in one Saturday afternoon to find a lady patiently sorting wilting from perky flowers and creating a fresh arrangement. During our chat, we exchanged a few words about the building. I commented on the acoustic and the beauty; she brought up the difficulty heating such a large space.
Although costly to maintain, church buildings can be truly beautiful and breath-taking places. From the simplest, white-walled, puritan meeting-house to the oldest and most ornate ancient cathedral, they have been designed and constructed for the express purpose of facilitating humanity’s encounter with divinity. At their best they provide, inspiration, rest, peace, beauty.
Ideally church buildings are enlivened by a diverse and active family of believers. Among these people would be those with gifts to maintain the building in order to facilitate the continued meeting, growth and fellowship of those for whom the church functions as the (faith) family home. In such a context church buildings can be positive and healthy, a space for the faith family to be manifested and share important time together.
In recent years, an increasing number of church communities have actively opened their buildings to others around them. They offer the resource of space to bless others with hospitality, be that a local nursery or preschool, uniform groups, weight-loss clubs or even other faith groups who lack a place of worship. Congregations that share generously in this way without expectation of return, but only in hope of serving and getting to know their communities can be a blessing. They may even receive in return enough remuneration to maintain a building that they would otherwise struggle to keep open.
In an age now mostly gone, the church building was an important hub for the community. In a majority Christian society, church-going was an important ritual of cultural life as well as faith, and most in the community would go to the church regularly as naturally as they would go to work or to the shop or, perhaps, down the pub.
This is, however, the case no longer. Church, as we have inherited it, has become largely a fringe concern, a specialist club for those few who still feel their faith is tied to weekly worship in such buildings. As a result of this change in culture, I would like to suggest that the Building, for many congregations can become more of hindrance than a help.
In the context of ageing and/or dwindling congregations, buildings can become something quite negative. It is far too easy for people to become obsessed with maintaining them, filling them with people, returning them to their former glory. The building can become almost an extension of the psyche of the congregation. This is particularly true for those who have care of the building. It is unthinkable to change the building, give up the building, or use the building for anything not considered sacred. Even when a congregation is dwarfed by the building that once was full and financially crippled by its maintenance, the building must be kept at all costs.
Buildings can also be unhelpful when they become the obsessive focus of evangelism as the sole mission of the church. If a building is welcoming, inclusive, full of various groups renting space or perhaps shares space in a community centre, the building has contact with the un-churched built-in. In such a situation, the missional focus of the congregation can narrow to those people as the church’s mission field. Too often this ends in treating those who stray within or near our church buildings as targets to be converted. One also frequently hears some discouraged church member bemoaning the lack of connection between foot traffic and bums on seats or more people to help maintain the building. Hospitality should never be conditional. We are called to give and to love because Jesus did, not in order to fill our buildings.
It is also possible for buildings to contribute to a sense of complacency. If the church building is a decent size and respectably full at each service, the congregation can feel safe and satisfied. Perhaps they might be sorry that more people do not come in to share in the wonders of church in their building, but they have no need of these people, so their absence is not difficult to ignore.
In these three and other situations church buildings can become more of a hindrance than a helpful tool. As congregations age, shrink or change in response to their communities, holding onto, fixing and filling the building can too easily become the paramount concern of the church members. It is cloaked as “mission” and preaching the gospel, but people desperately want bums on seats because that’s what keeps the doors open and the building in good repair.
In my experience, this priority too often sets aside the gospel, Jesus, and the kingdom of God (which is within us, not our buildings or denominational structures). Instead we become obsessed with continuing the build and maintain a finite, worldly kingdom of bricks or wood or stone, convinced that, as it has been a conduit of God’s glory and blessing in the past, it will be again.
Perhaps it is difficult to see beyond the walls. We feel we need the buildings to give shape to our mission or our relationship with the community. This may be the case, but it is a fine line to walk, and perhaps we would do better to ask ourselves or our congregations to consider, from time to time, if the building, its limits, its needs, its cost, has come to overshadow the mission of Jesus to love, serve, sacrifice, and help the people around us.
When buildings are taken for granted as part of our church structures and a necessary mark of the identity of any given congregation, they can easily do more harm than good. When they become the focus of and reason for what we do, they become idols. When we see them as too sacred to be disposable (or to be shared with a different faith group in need of space), there is a danger they will replace God, who alone is holy, in the life of the church.
In such and similar cases, church structures, whether concrete, brick, wooden, stone (or merely psychological), too easily become bastions in which we hide to preserve a long dead identity and perpetuate rites and sacrifices that are no longer applicable or understood in our culture and world.
If your building causes you to lose sight of God, burn it down, sell it or give it away. It is better for Jesus’ followers to be homeless than to be obsessed with preserving the past and so find themselves in a hell of their own making rather than working in the fields of the Kingdom of God.
[This reflection applies more directly to my experience of UK churches than US, but I think the topic is also applicable to many US congregations for whom the building is itself often a kind of kingdom, a destination, a stronghold of a certain identity in which people come and mass together. Too often this can feed into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. If our buildings provide us with worship, coffee shop, school, counselling, and almost every other need, we can easily become isolated from the world to such an extent that our safe communities begin to foster hate and fear towards those who are outside our walls.]