As any good sociologist will tell you, there are always unintended consequences to any social “advancement.” At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, people took their carpets out of the house in the spring and in the fall and beat the them clean. Various techniques were used though the rest of the to sprinkle substances on the carpets to keep away a musty smell and preserve a fragrant household aroma. Not long after the wide spread use of electricity came about, the “labor saving” vacuum cleaner was invented. Of course this lead to more carpeting, wall-to-wall carpeting, and higher standards of carpet cleanliness. If you clean at least once a week you soon realize you are probably spending more time cleaning carpets than people were before the invention of the vacuum cleaner. Technology has a way of biting back.
Possibly one of the most detrimental developments for the Church in America has to been the improvement in building codes and firefighting techniques. Most churches before the last century were simple meeting halls. Fires were not uncommon in American towns and church buildings frequently perished. No matter. The congregation found a new place to meet or built another building. A strong attachment to buildings was likely to be a major disappointment.
Now buildings last for generations. The can be utterly unsuited for contemporary needs, situated in inconvenient locations, and be voracious in the consumption of electricity and fuel for climate control. The upkeep of the building can have a crippling effect on the congregation’s resources. Conducting worship out of sanctuary owned by another church, or renting a meeting hall, is often economically preferable to the dogged determination to stay in a building. Why the resistance to move?
The Early Church had no buildings that we know of for the first 300 years of its existence. Some of the earliest churches may have met in synagogues but most met in households. There were no “sacred structures” to preserve or special rules for how to behave when we are in “God’s house.” In fact, God tried the whole “God’s House” thing with Israelites. It didn’t work out. He had the house demolished. Twice!
The gospel of John (2:19) records Jesus’ claim that if the temple be torn down, he will raise it again in three days. This was taken later as a prophecy about his resurrection. But why would Jesus refer to himself as a temple. The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:19-22:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. NRSV
Then in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Corinthians Paul wrote:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple. NRSV
Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:4-5:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. NRSV
There are no more temples, sacred buildings, or “Houses of God!” There is only a living temple of which we each are living stones, and Jesus is the cornerstone. Where ever we are is holy because God, living in us, is holy. God’s intention is that his living temple expand until it encompasses the whole earth. In my estimation, to speak of church buildings as sacred, or as houses of God, borders on idolatry. A building is inconsequential to being a church. The church existed without buildings in the beginning and Christians all around the world to without today. Am I saying that we should not have church buildings. Not at all. Building a building as a place to have corporate worship is a strategy. It is a means to an end. But we must ask to what end?
There is a wonderful line from the movie the Pirates of the Caribbean. Captain Jack Sparrow is stranded on an island with Elizabeth and he talks of what he will do with his ship the Black Pearl once he recaptures it. He tells Elizabeth “That’s what a ship is you know. It's not just a keel, and a hull, and a deck, and sails. That’s what a ship needs. No… What a ship is…what the Black Pearl really is… is freedom!” Well a church is not a sanctuary, an educational wing, a fellowship hall, and a spacious parking lot. Those are all things a church needs (maybe!) What a church is…what our congregation is… is....?