In a recent Basement Tape called Desiring the Kingdom, the fellows talked about the relative recent decline in a belief in, or even knowledge of, the Kingdom of God. It used to be a guiding force in the church this idea that the territory that was subjugated to the will of God would, or should, increase outward. And so the church planted roots and staked out territory, and erected actual physical representations of those beliefs.
Juxtaposed to the storefront worship centers of our day are the cathedrals of yesteryear. Having a hundred plus year building plan stands in stark contrast to we who can’t be bothered to spend the time or money to build even something that resembles a house of worship.
If our culture is the outward expression of our most deeply held inward beliefs then what does what we build to worship our God in say about us? We have seen Christians worship in caves when to do so publicly would have been dangerous. We have the awesome achievements of mighty cathedrals that still stand after many hundreds of years and we have everything inbetween. Surely the widow’s mite is a story that can balance our expectations on one end of what God expects of us, but then there is also Solomon’s temple.
And he prepared the inner sanctuary inside the temple, to set the ark of the covenant of the Lord there. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high. He overlaid it with pure gold, and overlaid the altar of cedar. So Solomon overlaid the inside of the temple with pure gold. He stretched gold chains across the front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. The whole temple he overlaid with gold, until he had finished all the temple; also he overlaid with gold the entire altar that was by the inner sanctuary (I Kings 19-22).
Gold. Pure gold. Would we expect anything less for the temple that God Himself declared should be built for Him?
The beauty of a building
We can all agree that buildings can be works of art, beautiful, transcendent, lifting our spirits out of this world and into the next. The great cathedrals of Europe were built to give glory to God, to inspire the saints, to lift our eyes to the heavens (literally). When one stands before a cathedral like Chartres in France, that was built almost a thousand years ago, and see it tower over the town hundreds of feet above the modest dwellings of twelfth century rural France and the investment of time and money and energy over many, many, years you come to just one conclusion: this building to the glory of God was of monumental importance to those people.
It was to the people of that city in France what the twin towers were to the giants of the financial district – a perfect representation of that group of people at that time.
The power of a building
Imagine the faith and sacrifice that were at the heart of such an endeavor. As crops failed one harvest or as the local economy dipped or as the rains failed to fall, surely the money would dry up. “We’ve been at this for twenty years already and it’s nowhere nearly completed. Enough already! Let’s just stop where we are and call it good enough.” But they didn’t.
Imagine the courage and fortitude of multiple generations of Christians. A son might see his father work on that façade for a decade only to join him there and then replace him and then be joined by his own son. It might be the work of that family for a hundred years.
Perhaps the money came easily and the work was carefree and had fringe benefits unknown in that time. But probably not.
As we build the Kingdom spiritually, there will be a myriad of occasions where we will be able to build it physically whether it be in our personal dwellings or where we go to meet our God.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that the medium is the message. That is, the method by which you present your idea, product, religion, is what you are attracting them to. For example, the local non-denominational church that has a man in a bunny suit out by the road to advertise the upcoming Easter egg hunt (and worship service) is representing to the passersby the convictions of the church: it’s important to have fun and attracting people to a service about Christ’s death and resurrection should be light-hearted. One would not expect to enter that particular service and find solemnity or reverence.
Buildings are expensive and time-consuming and some think, rather wasteful. It all depends on your perspective doesn’t it? I recently attended my wife Lindsay’s home church in the Atlanta area. It was established in 1850 and has had three sanctuaries on the same plot of land. Rather than plowing each under to build another, they have kept each building, the oldest going back to 1905. Behind the building is a cemetery with saints buried there going back as far as the Civil War.
What are they saying? What is important to them? Why have they been able to remain in the same location, hold to biblical orthodoxy and bury their fathers for over a hundred and fifty years? A cemetery is a hundred small buildings that may be more important that the one we worship in. There might be nothing mightier to keep a church body sane in their dealings with each other than to have all their ancestors buried fifty feet behind the sanctuary. Who wants to leave that church and their connection to grandfather and great grandmother over the color of the carpet?
All these things matter. Life is about subtlety and the decisions we make about our church buildings are anything but subtle. They have the power to overwhelm us with emotion or turn our stomachs.
May our church buildings, no matter the size or grandeur, be a well thought out expression of our deepest convictions so that when a stranger enters our midst there, he will know he is in the midst of a people who know and love their God and are committed to the spread of His kingdom. And may we who enter as His worshippers know the same things.