Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

About Church Buildings

We’re in the final stages of permitting and funding considerations prior to groundbreaking on a new sanctuary for our little flock in Seattle. I say little because we’re 800-1000 attenders on any given Sunday in a city of maybe one million people.
As we get to this critical stage, I’ve been thinking and praying about church buildings (a subject about which I’m not normally given to think and pray). Here are some random thought about church buildings:

Thought #1: Church buildings have the effect of making the local body of Christ visible. This, I would argue, is a good thing (unless our calling to also scatter into world missionally is completely ignored). The church scattered has value, but so does the church gathered. It’s of very little value to talk about the ‘universal church’ and the ‘mystical body of Christ’ if that universalism and mysticism isn’t eventually expressed in visible locality. Just as a spirit and soul without a body renders a person unknowable, so is ‘church’ unknowable if she only exists in the universal and mystical sense, but not in the gathered community. For this reason, church buildings have, wherever the church has taken root, been a localizing force, a gathering place to make the invisible visible.

Thought #2: More ministry space is a good thing. I completely understand the line of thinking which declares that the church’s job is to be out in the world, serving the world and functioning as agents of hope, healing and restoration, in many contexts and relationships. But this calling doesn’t negate the possibility and reality of the church community gathering together in space to offer services to the world (such as shelter, day-care, practical teaching in job skills, a gather place for community building, a safe place for youth to encounter each other and face the weighty issues of life together, a place for university students to ask questions, wrestle with matters of faith, and know they will be honored and loved, a place for the arts to find support and expression, and so much more.) All of these matters require space somewhere. If God is giving us opportunities to do these things, and blessing these kinds of endeavors to the point where our walls are crowding people out, then adding space makes sense.

Thought #3: Churches that are growing aren’t inherently evil. Our global economic system, it seems, is premised on the assumptions that continual growth in the GDP is necessary in order to sustain the machinery of civilization. Critics point out flaws in the system and the assumptions of the system, positing that such a model is unsustainable and unjust. You can agree or disagree. But please don’t connect the dots between the capitalist model of growth and church growth. Churches are, over time, supposed to grow (or so Jesus and the testimony of the early church implied). We want lives to be changed and people to be forgiven, healed, equipped, and mobilized to take their gifts into the world, serving and giving generously in Jesus name. May the tribe of those who do so increase greatly… until He returns! Oh but be careful – if that tribe does increase, they’ll want to be with others who have met, or are seeking Christ, and they’ll need to sit somewhere, and be taught somewhere, and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ somewhere. The most vocal critics of church buildings still continue to gather in them. The exception are those who meet in homes, but most who do are forced to either close their doors to newcomers, or change their theology and meet in space bigger than a house.

Thought #4: Space Matters. Here we are, saying that the Platonic division between spirit and matter is heresy, and celebrating art and expressions of beauty. Doesn't this same line of thinking lead us to the vital matter of giving care to the place where the visible church convenes? Our gathering place says a great deal about whether we really believe that beauty and care for creation is part of our calling. Proper care for the architecture and space of the church buildings, interior and exterior, is a critical piece of our testimony, for it is the piece that everyone sees, whether they know Christ or not. What does our facility say about God's character, His beauty, His holiness, His love of creativity, and His love for us? Every space makes a statement - invites or repels; offends or blesses; celebrates beauty or diminishes it. You can't ignore this reality (which is why I almost became an architect).

Thought #5: Church buildings are dangerous. They are dangerous because they become confused with real life the same way body displaces spirit as the source of meaning. Such displacement ends up masking our internal bankruptcies, under the guise of external glories. There's a line in a Switchfoot sing about the women who would rather 'fix her make-up, than fix what's going on.' And so it can be, and has been throughout history - programs and facilities displace relationships, truth telling, and the power of sacrament, forgiving, celebrating, serving, and simply being present 'in Jesus name'. When those things get displaced by externals, we've missed the point.

There are more thoughts about how buildings themselves testify of something important in the same way that your body and clothing testifies about, but isn't really, you. But I'm out of time for now. I welcome your thoughts!



At 4/4/06 13:26, Blogger lantius said...

i think the analogy between our bodies and clothing is one that gels with my apprehension about church building projects. when you hear people talk about their apparel or body image, about the things that influence them it is only very rarely that glorifying God is a prime concern, rather it is the glorification of self.

similarly it seems that, particularly in the american whiteprotestant church, the building is designed less to reveal an invisible God and more to self-promote an individual church, as the simpsons so rightly criticized last week in the church's fundraiser for building a taller steeple than the church across the way.

of course the humor there is because the expectation is that the fundraiser should ostensibly be for some holier aspect of the kingdom. while i to am attempting to be cautious around issues of dualism, it is an interesting note that here in the west we tend to be concerned with the external, with the solutions that can be bought, rather than the internal, the parts that take manifest effort. i wonder how our experience and concerns with physical structure contrast with those of our brothers and sisters in the third world church?

At 4/4/06 14:08, Blogger Richard Dahlstrom said...

Thanks for the thoughts. Having had the privilege of sharing ministry in Nepal and India, it seems that those places face very similar issues to our own. Our mission team in Nepal ministered in a village where the local church had acquired property and built a structure in which to worship. During our visit there years ago, the structure had filled to capacity and they were seeking to acquire more land. Of course the scale and the architecture are different, and the sacrifices needed to realize such a goal far larger in such setting, the issue remains. There are similar stories from India, where God has provided for those who are doing his work.

You articulate important dangers, with respect to both clothing and buildings. But the dangers should lead to caution and deep care for the interior matters of the heart, not nudity.

At 5/4/06 11:49, Blogger Trafficman said...

Although I am sure some disagree with me, I delight in worshipping in a beautiful church. I have been in various places of worship - Baptist, Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal and independent. One can find plain, modern and utliltarian types as well as the traditional, classical and ornate churchs. For me, the ones that remind me of hotel conference hall are difficult places to meet with God. Those that reflect the beauty of God, with architecture and furnishings, paintings, icons, etc. are the ones that seem to help me in my worship. Not that one HAS to have such surroundings, but it is an added plus, for me anyway, in my worship time.

Now, does that mean a local church has to spend enormous sums of money to "dress up" the building? I think not. Appropriate furnishings can be obtained to help guide the parishoners in worship without breaking the budget. I have seen pictures and heard about "third world" churches that can do so with very limited resources, so lack of a big budget should not be a problem.

I look forward to seeing your chruch's completed new building!
- sldubya

At 7/4/06 00:43, Blogger andrew said...

pastor richard, i don't really have an insightful response about this particular post (though it sounds like you've been on a switchfoot kick recently). actually, i just wanted to let you know that the columbia river analogy in your last sermon stuck with me this week. i hope you don't mind, but i borrowed it for a blog posting.

also, i'm looking forward to this sunday; i've brokered a deal with some work friends whereby they come to church with me this sunday and i return the favor by attending one of their weekly 'church' services at their local pub....


Post a Comment

<< Home