Thursday, March 29, 2012

The church is not the building except when it is

Let me apologize in advance for a very long post.

Matthew Hoskinson, a clergyman in Manhattan at First Baptist Church in New York City, wrote a contradictory essay for The Gospel Coalition on one of my (least) favorite topics, “church buildings”: Redeemer's New Building and Yours. The catalyst for his essay was Redeemer Presbyterian, “Tim Keller’s church”, moving from rented space in his church building to their “own place”. For Matthew this is both an occasion for joy and thinking about the role buildings play in the church. Needless to say, I have a couple of minor disagreement with him.

His first three points are pretty vanilla. The church is not the building (how often do we hear that said but not practiced?). The church needs to meet somewhere: That place could be the catacombs, a park, or a public school Not in homes, interestingly enough. The church needs a place to put the kids, presumably because little ones are disruptive to “worship”, a point I disagree with vehemently but is generally a settled article of faith in the church. Nothing terribly offensive there but then we get to point four (remembering point one that the church is the people, not the building). I have excerpted the relevant portion (emphasis mine):

4. Because the church as a people reflects the glory of God, the church's meeting place ought to reflect well on his character. There is a wider variety of opinions on this point than the last. But at minimum, this means there are sufficient and clean restrooms, relatively fresh paint on the walls, and sturdy flooring. Our Roman Catholic friends may reason that this point justifies massive, extravagant cathedrals. I don't entirely disagree. There is certainly room for churches to decide to what extent they should do things to demonstrate the beauty of God in their building. But I would argue that utilitarianism is not the path of spirituality. God created beauty for us to enjoy. We can't sacrifice everything on the altar of beauty, but if the finished product is not beautiful, then we've failed to reflect his glory.

As I remarked in my comment, the highlighted portion above is an unusually frank admission that our model of church buildings owes a lot to the Roman Catholic notion of holy spaces and not much to the Scriptures that we, especially those in the Gospel Coalition, claim to subscribe to. Selective Sola Scriptura! What is particularly disturbing is that Matthew’s comment is completely uncontroversial in most of the church. We want a “church” to seem special and holy because that makes us feel like we are doing something special and holy by our mere presence. Feeding the homeless or visiting a lonely widow is pretty mundane but sitting in a beautiful cathedral or “sanctuary”? That makes us feel like we are really worshipping (where the definition of “worship” is me having an emotional religious experience).

The comment on this post is below:

Matthew, I am curious what Redeemer paid for their "own space" in Manhattan? Also curious, when you say "Some thought the expense was too much, but after deliberation we went forward with it nonetheless.", how much was the expense to add a tower so that on Sunday morning people could find an entrance? In a city that has such high real estate costs, is owning and "improving" a building the best stewardship?

Of course such questions are considered impolite in America where what is mine is mine. For all of our talk about the church being the people and not the building, most of the church identifies primarily with the local organization they are "members" of and the physical location they meet rather than the broader church, even those who live across the street from them. Thus the common cultural religious language like "going to church", as if you are not the church except when in formal meetings, or "my church", "our church", "Tim Keller's church" that betrays the reality that we really do see the church as the building, the Sunday meeting, the programs and not the people.

Every nickel we spend on making current believers more comfortable on Sunday morning is a nickel we aren't spending on reaching the lost (except of course those that choose to come to a building at the time, place and manner of our choosing to listen to a sermon). Certainly the church needs to gather and it needs a place to gather but the idea that we have to build architecturally pleasing edifices to give us a sense of the holy has its origins in Roman Catholicism, not the church we see in the New Testament, something Matthew admits in a surprisingly frank admission.

Spending a bunch of money on a manmade temple is does not “reflect well on his character”, i.e. God’s character. It does not reflect the character of the God who became a human being, the Son of Man who “…had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2). If we really wanted to spend our money in a manner that is reflective of the character of the God, we would use those funds to ensure that there were none in the church with need, there were no missionaries going from church to church to raise funds instead of preaching the Gospel to the nations, that Christian families open to adoption had the funds to do so rather than making a comfortable, pretty “sanctuary” with adjoining rooms for Sunday school classes and a nursery to keep kids from interrupting the sermon and ruining our worship.

I wonder what the church in America would do if we ceased to have comfortable, aesthetically pleasing buildings to meet in. Would we meet in parks or homes or in secret if need be? Or would most church attenders just stop going if it were inconvenient or worse if it were dangerous? As far as evangelism…same scenario. If we couldn’t just “invite someone to church”, is the average “layperson” being equipped weekly for the work of ministry (Eph 4:11-16) or are they simply being trained to sit and listen to a sermon and put a check in the plate?

The church in America owns untold billions in real estate and virtually none of it reflects the character of God. They reflect the pride of man and that is something that should disturb us all.
I get that we need to meet somewhere. Having a conference call or webinar is not really getting it done. As a family we meet on Sunday’s in a couple of different buildings, although I don’t like that, but both are very old and paid for with minimal maintenance costs. Just because we need to meet somewhere doesn’t justify the almost obsessive focus on building more and better buildings, many of which are little more than showrooms to exhibit the oratorical skills of a famous clergyman (i.e. the new St. Andrews in Florida to make it easier for more people to listen to R.C. Sproul in person).

The question I posed in my comment is the one that haunts me. We are careening headlong toward a “post-Christendom” western society and the church is doing, by and large, nothing to prepare for that. We have put blinders on and are plowing straight ahead, expecting and demanding that our “come to us on our terms” model of church with professional clergy and performance oriented meetings, will somehow carry the day in the future even as every indicator for the future and the tragic condition of the church in the present screams out to us that it has not and it will not. We are completely failing in one of the primary missions of the church, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, and yet we have the mindset that we need to keep doing what we have been doing, just more of it. We never should have been spending so much money on buildings and in the future we will simply not have that option. The church better wake up and soon.

1 comment:

Aussie John said...


As usual, right on the ball!

"The church better wake up and soon."

The sinful pride of the egotistical, navel gazing natural man, demands ".....a “church” to seem special and holy because that makes us feel like we are doing something special and holy by our mere presence.",and it allows him/her to compete with the buildings of other groups,of the same ilk or otherwise.

If we NEED an ostentatious place in which to "worship", we have critically misunderstood what worship really is.

What we "FEEL LIKE" we are doing, and what we are actually doing, are usually irreconcilable.