For the last several months, a church I work with has been considering the sale of their building and the possibility of renting another church or alternative space for their community. All practical challenges of the church are also theological in nature. How should we understand the spiritual or sacred dimension of our church’s building?
From groves to cathedrals… what’s in a church building?
My mother grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeastern Kentucky. My parents settled our family in the city, but but we often returned to the country on weekends to visit family. One of my first memories of church was a simple wooden church with no air-conditioning and no running water.
In the summers, a few ceiling fans circultated the hot air around. Worshipers cooled themselves with paper hand fans that had a picture of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” on them. When you got could bear the heat no more, you made a trip up to a large orange Igloo cooler full of ice and water. And when you could hold that water no more, you make a trip to outhouse out behind the church.
When I was a college student, I spent six weeks in the West African Country of the Ivory Coast. I experienced church in a different way there, with pulsating rhythms of African music and the chant of the singers as they danced in their isles. One Sunday we visited a village church that worship in a tree grove because they had no building at all.
I have also experienced church buildings in the form of stunning cathedrals and basilicas in Europe. I am always struck by the beauty and grandeur of these magnificent edifices, but I also often felt uncomfortable with the opulence of these environment.
Is there something special about the church building?
Most of us have experienced “church” in the context of a building. Yet, we also assume that it is the people that make up the ecclesia (the gathered community). When it comes to the construction, purchase, or sale of a building, we might ask–is there some spiritual or sacred dimension to church buildings? Furthermore, we could ask:
Is the space the church meets in immaterial to the spiritual worship and ministry of spiritual both people?
Is the church building an important form of communication or art? Does it say something about us or our faith?
Theology as Response
It’s important to note that most of theology is a response to something… usually a problem! In the case of buildings, here are few examples of situations that have caused communities to consider the use or change of their building:
- An urban church experiences significant demographic changes in their neighborhood that conflict with the church’s historical culture… so they consider rebuilding in the suburbs.
- A church plant is growing but can’t afford to buy or build a church, so they meet in a storefront, warehouse, or even meet in homes.
- In my own city of Montreal, we have seen a glut of old churches and shrinking congregations that cannot keep up with their buildings.
It is also helpful to look at the biblical/historical data and the different forms and functions buildings and spaces among God’s people
The Israelites constructed a Tabernacle, or a portable temple when they were wandering in the desert. In the ancient world, a palace would have been the home for an earthly monarch… a temple was the home of a heavenly monarch.
For the Israelites the tabernacle was the literally dwelling place of God with his covenant people. It is important to note that that the tabernacle had furnishings and these physical items played a role in communicating or revealing God to the people. In short, God was the host, offering sanctuary to the people.
A key verse concerning the Tabernacle is Exodus 25:8: “They shall make for me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.”
Along with this presence comes a very deep theology of God’s holiness and our need to do something about sin. This is why this part of Scripture is also full of instructions about sacrifices and purification.
Among other things, a center piece of the tabernacle is the Law, and we seen a profound relationship between the temple, the presence of God, and the Word of God, that is hopefully carried on to the New Testament church.
We also should consider the period when God’s people have inhabited and settled in the Promised Land. David was the newly crowned King of a United Kingdom of Israel (U.S. of Israel:). One of his first political moves was to bring the Ark, from the former Tabernacle, to the new unified capital of Jerusalem.
David quickly begins to plan a permanent temple for God, but notice that God doesn’t seem too interested… God has other plans however, he essentially says to David:
“I haven’t needed a temple since the day I began moving along with the people whom I led out of slavery in Egypt. At what time did I say to any of them, ‘why haven’t you built me a house or a temple to live in… I have, however, dwelled with you, scooping you up from the pasture, watching your sheep, and making you a Prince, delivering you from your enemies, and making you a people again.”
In short, God was more interested in building his people than them making a building for him. This passage is not only key to 2 Samuel; it is key to all of Scripture. In God’s response to David, he says he will build David’s “Dynasty” and from David’s line he will bring about a future King and establish his Kingdom… I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me….” This sets up a messianic hope and reframes the idea of God’s people building him a temple to him building a temple and a kingdom out of them.
The earthly temple in Jerusalem is finally build (by David’s son), later destroyed… later rebuilt… and later destroyed.
When we arrive the Gospels (at the Beginning of the New Testament), we have another example worth noting, the Synagogue. The synagogue was the place in the New Testament where Jews gathered for teaching and worship. This is an interesting contrast from the idea of temple worship that was focused on sacrifice. It is also the forbearer to the early church, which at first acted simply as a Christian Jewish sect.
This form fits the context well too. The Jewish people were a scattered people among the Roman world and they longed to be reestablished as a nation. Jesus preached and taught in synagogues, as this is where people seeking God could be found. At the same time, they become places of persecution in cases where the Gospel of Jesus was not well accepted.
Taking it to the Streets
Beyond the synagogues, Jesus and his disciples take his teaching and proclamation to the streets. This ranges from City Gates and water holes, to open fields and fishing ports. Just as Israel’s God was on the move, so was Jesus and his band of disciples. They preached repentance and practicing healing and casting out demons. It is a powerful image of God’s power and Kingdom coming to Earth.
The Early Church in the Greco-Roman world
When we get past the Gospels and Acts, we begin gleaning from the early Christians. Like the Jewish faithful before them, they gathered together. They gathered in houses for sure, and eventually in public places. They gathered for prayer and teaching and for fellowship and mutual encouragement.
Within about 80 years, Christianity had finally became divorced from it’s Jewish identity. Much of the church was non-Jewish as well. Homes still seem to be the main meeting place, especially among wealthier Christian patrons who might have the room. Greek Atriums and larger dinning rooms made adequate spaces. Until 260, Christians were persecuted, so people who gathered a “church” in their home were at risk of persecution.
As persecution ceased and Christianity became legally recognized in 313 by the emperor Constantine, the church began owning properties. This especially including cemeteries where Christians were particularly devoted to the Christians martyred before them. Larger prayer halls and spaces followed. Church buildings quickly became a part of Christian worship as the Christian faith became mainstream and flourished.
The Roman Church & and the Monastics
Now, I don’t like to demonize the Roman or Constantinian evolution of the church. But, I don’t like to ignore it’s significance either, particularly the connection between the church and secular government and the frequent power and abuses that this produces.
So one last example of Christian space is worth a mention. The mainstreaming of the church and the favor it enjoyed coincided with the rise of Monasticism. It’s almost as if the church, which had been adapted to persecution in the first few centuries, was not well fit for the favor it was beginning to enjoy. As a response, some disciples chose communal forms of living that were mostly separated and isolated. In these communities they could truly live an alternative life from the outer world and it’s vices.
Influence and power do not easily go hand in hand with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount! Monasteries as alternative spaces as well as Kingdom communities is worth our attention today. Not all removed themselves from society… some monastic traditions focused on communities engaged in urban missions (like the Dominicans).
Building a healthy theology of sacred spaces today
Scripture and the Church History give us much to chew on as it relates to a theology of space for the church. Here are a few conclusions that might be helpful…
- Our sacred spaces still reflect an anticipation of God’s presence… a meeting place to find God in “his” space. He invites us in from our world to his and he is our host. Our buildings, the furnishings, and the decoration can help communicate this.
- The essence of the church is being a “People of God.” Individual persons being a community, a people… seems to be consistent with God’s desire as seen in OT theology.
- There is nothing inherently sacred in a church building; there is nothing inherently profane or non-sacred either. The idea of consecration, or “setting apart” for sacred purpose, is perhaps the most helpful framework for understanding sacred spaces. The sacredness of a building or an object is connected to its reality in use and meaning. It’s much like an instrument and it’s music. The church projects the message and music that we fill it with!
- We should be careful of how forms can be relative. For one person a church is a “sanctuary” for another it can be an image of oppression.
- Any “profane” space can be consecrated to channel the church’s mission and ministry… a home, a store-front, or a leased space in an office park.
- Historically, the “church” as a space, has been connected with the Word and Sacrament. The Protestant Reformers taught that the church was present where the Word was truly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.
- Lastly, any church building or space should help serve the idea of both Gathering God’s people, AND Scattering God’s people.
Gathered and Scattered
This is consistent with an Old Testament theology of God’s presence and purpose with his people.
You may have noticed a common shape in some worship… Gather, Word, Table, Send. This reflects the vision of the church gathered and scattered. Even the word Mass comes from the Latin word to dismiss. It is also closely connected with the word Mission.
The Church and God’s Kingdom and Mission are forever interconnected.
Swiss theologian Emil Brunner famously said, “The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning—where there is no mission, there is no church”
Two images are helpful… a whirlpool (like when you let the water out of the bath tub) and a merry go ground. One is centripetal (pulling things in) and one is centrifugal (pushing things out). Our church must exist in both forces!
The place we meet and the experiences we have can be special… can be sacred, but this cannot be the only way we experience being the People of God.
Our church building or worship space, whatever it is, or is not—should amplify, not compromise, the mission and ministry of the church.
The church building or meeting place is where we invite God’s presence and desire to meet with him, but is not understood as the only place he is, or where we are Christians. He is a God on the move and active outside our worship gatherings… and he desires that we be also.