Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Do Churches Need Buildings?

This is a monthly column I write for Temple City Life.


With Glenn Layne


Often when I meet someone, and they learn I am a pastor, they say, “So where’s your church?” I dutifully answer, “It’s the brick church on Baldwin Avenue, just north of Las Tunas.” Usually that does it unless they say, “But I thought that was in Arcadia.” Oh, life on the city line.
But when I answer their question, there’s a little theological voice in the back of my head that says, “You mean, where does the church I serve meet?” In reality, come 2 AM on a Tuesday night, and you will find an empty church meeting building, but the church is out there, living in Temple City, Arcadia, San Gabriel, El Monte, Monrovia, Baldwin Park, Alhambra…that’s the real church.

There are times I hate having a building. Buildings are expensive. You have to build ‘em, heat ‘em, cool ‘em, pay for electricity and water and my person least favorite, insurance.
It’s an interesting fact: go back to the New Testament, it’s nothing less than amazing how fast early Christians became indifferent to the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem was the largest temple on earth—larger than any temple in Rome or Greece or India or China. But one of the last things Jesus taught on was that within a generation of His death, the Temple would be destroyed; more than that, He put Himself forward as the True Temple of God, God’s true dwelling place, and later in the New Testament the people who followed Jesus were also called God’s Temple. But early Christians were uninterested in the Jerusalem Temple or any other building as God’s dwelling.

It was about 400 years before Christians started building church buildings. That time lag corresponded with a loss of the clear teachings of Jesus and the apostles that buildings no longer sufficed to be the “dwelling of God.” The human heart lurches back to shrines and temples and churches that are regarded as “the house of God.” So for the next 1,600 Christiana constructed bigger and bigger palaces for God, from Constantinople to Rome to London—to a glass cathedral in Garden Grove.

I find myself asking a question. Do churches need buildings? Clearly, Biblically the answer is NO. We did fine without them for 400 years. If we need to, we can do without them again.
When I was a college student, the school I went to had a winter term option in Salzburg, Austria. A soaring cathedral dominates the center of the old city. Other Gothic and Rococo structures grace the city. But my favorite place of worship was cut into the hillside a short walk from the cathedral. The guide said that this cave was modified by early Christians as a place of worship no later than 200 AD. It was crude and dark. And I felt at home. Yes, we can go back to the catacombs if we need to.

But I am the pastor of a church that owns a chunk of real estate here in Temple City—six buildings and two homes! What does that mean for us?

In a word: if a church owns property, they’d better justify it by heavy use. One of the things that makes me happy is how heavily used our property is. I don’t know how many times I’ve driven on to the church campus and seen a lot full of cars, and I had no idea what was going on! We love to extend the use of the property to the community.

For example, we host two other congregations (Rock Mountain—Mandarin-speaking and the Kachin-Burmese church.) We have a preschool (started here in 1965, one of the oldest in the LA area). We have two ESL classes with nearly 100 students. We host the dinners for the Blue Banner project as well as the interdenominational Men’s Bible Study Fellowship. Periodically, we’ve hosted after-school tutoring, as well as fund-raising dinners for People for People and for various area school auxiliaries. We’re hoping to add citizenship classes this fall as well as a drop in center for immigrants and others. In other words, we are convinced that God put us here to serve and bless the community. Why? Well, as I like to put it, to make Jesus look good.

On the other hand, I cannot imagine a worse use of God’s resources than a church that’s open for a few hours on Sunday, maybe a weekday Bible study and choir practice. That’s inward-looking and downright selfish. That’s a church as a shrine, a temple. God calls the church to be people—and if we own property, it had better be to bless the whole community.


Anonymous said...

Go on with your bad-self!
That was one of the best explanations on use, misuse, and abuse of church buildings. The church is people, not an edifice. I bet you embrace diversity without compromising your biblical, spiritual call too.

Anonymous said...

Back in the 1970's I visited a church that chose not to have a building of its own; Circle Church in Chicago, then pastored by David Mains. They met in a union hall rented on Sunday mornings.

I recall looking around at the congregation, and talking with them afterwards. It seemed that all of them were apartment dwellers, which really wasn't that odd for that location. Later it occured to me that this wasn't an accident; the church arrangement fit their living conditions.

When the children of Israel were in the wilderness and living in tents, they were given a tent for their worship site. Later, when David had established a kingdom and was living in a palace, he said that God should have a palace as well. When Judah returned from exile, the prophets shamed the people for decorating their own houses and leaving God's house in disrepair.

There is a spiritual/sociological principle here; the setting for our worship should mirror the setting for our living. As long as the American dream (and wide spread reality) is ownership of a single family dwelling, churches will have buildings they own and have primary use of.

<>< Ron Troup;

Dennis Reeves said...

When I was in seminary my mentoring pastor would always answer the question, "Where's your church?" with a list of neighborhoods where the people lived. Only when pushed would he give the location of the building where the church met. I have longed tried to emulate that attitude. I also wish we went back to the early New England term "meeting house" for the building.

Our own programing - much of it youth oriented and evangelistic in its purpose and results - would be very difficult to do without a meeting house.

I also use the line in one of my few repeated sermons: " If we are only the church when we are gathered in this room, then we are a body kept in a box, and there is only one kind of body you keep in a box."