Life and Death and Church Buildings

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‘Cause my Jesus would never be accepted in my church

The blood and dirt on his feet might stain the carpet

But he reaches for the hurting and despises the proud

And I think he’d prefer Beale Street to the stained glass crowd

And I know that he can hear me if I cry out loud

– “My Jesus” by Todd Agnew

Jesus talked about big things. Really big things. Life and death sorts of things. He talked about the coming of the Kingdom of God. He talked about love: love of God, love of neighbor, love of enemies. He talked about healing and justice and food and compassion and worship and prayer and resurrection.

But for all the big things Jesus talked about, he had very little to say about church buildings. Well, sure, there are the stories about Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem (“It’s written, My house will be called a house of prayer. But you’ve made it a hideout for crooks.” Matthew 21:13 CEB) and about Jesus talking about the destruction of the temple, yet other than knowing that Jesus taught in various synagogues, there’s really nothing about Jesus and church buildings in the gospels.

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Paul’s epistles aren’t incredibly helpful either, as people were generally meeting in house churches and Paul was much more concerned about how these new Christians were treating one another and sharing the good news of Jesus than about church buildings.

Ironically (or not, perhaps, depending on your view of the church), none of those things about which Jesus preached and taught or about which Paul wrote can quite inflame the passions of many congregation members as swiftly as church buildings.

This is not to say that church buildings are unimportant or even trivial. Not at all. Yet the question must be posed time and again: who (or what) do we worship? There are countless examples of marvelous and beautiful cathedrals, but do we worship the stained glass or the One whose story is told in the stained glass?

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And then – as is especially pertinent for nearly every church in the Midwestern United States – does this building exist for ministry or as a museum?

I will never forget the story of my in-laws’ pastor who, upon the dedication of a new sanctuary and gathering space, stated that the building was there to get dinged up, messed up, and used. Those imperfections would be signs that ministry was actually happening and this new building – nice as it was – served to host that ministry.

If the building is to be constantly pristine, just put up the velvet ropes and, for goodness’ sake, keep the young ones out!

Well, many churches are already wildly successful at the latter. Which means, of course, that those huge mortgages for those huge buildings won’t get paid off because the building became the object of worship rather than the vessel for worshiping God and fueling ministry. And perhaps that’s a fitting analogy for the state of Christianity in the early 21st century: hollowed-out.

But ready and waiting for renewal. Waiting to be used. Equipped to host and just waiting to be freed from the bondage to museum-hood.

A first step to freedom is honestly answering this question: Would Jesus be welcome at your church or would he make too big of a mess?

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