Have you ever wondered why we as Americans obsess about our homes/buildings/facilities? Every year we spend millions of dollars on decorations, paint, repairs, renovations and upgrades. The Home Depot and Walmart have countless people pass through their doors looking for the right appliance or epoxy that will spruce up or fix their humble abode. The same is true of companies and corporations that hire maintenance staff and landscapers to make everything look just right.
One answer to this question is what ancient and modern philosophers and theologians have referred to as “aesthetics.” That is, humans are hard-wired to seek and create beauty. It touches our souls. I believe this desire for beauty is an example of what the Bible teaches regarding the “imago Dei”: human beings are created in the image of God. God is lovely and creates lovely things, therefore we share the same passion.
Nonetheless, I have to wonder if we have taken it all a bit too far. I have been reflecting on this recently because of all the construction that has taken place on our church facility since I became Pastor two and half years ago. When I first arrived the church was just started an ambitious renovation campaign to dramatically modernize and improve our foyer, offices and sanctuary. Then we moved on to upgrading our children’s and youth wings. And then we installed air conditioning in the sanctuary. And then we replaced our sanctuary speaker system. Now we are rebuilding the ramp to our front entrance while also seeking to upgrade our fellowship hall. When does it ever end? The church building is only 37 years old and yet in the past two years we have spent tens of thousands of dollars to maintain and improve it.
Now don’t get me wrong! I am not complaining, just musing. Facilities, particularly church buildings, can serve an important purpose. They can provide a place to gather for meaningful worship and fellowship, where people can connect with God and one another. Creating the right environment is an important piece for connecting: studies show that lighting and colors and scents impact and shape people’s perceptions, moods and emotions. There is a reason people will pay four dollars for a cup of coffee at Starbucks rather than two dollars at Dunkin’ Donuts and contrary to popular opinion it is not all about the taste of the coffee. People will pay extra money to sit in plush chairs situated by fireplaces. (Believe me, I know from personal experience!)
Yet as is often the case, the Bible corrects my thinking and puts everything back into perspective. Ultimately, the church is all about the people, not the building. That is why the Bible calls the church, aka God’s people, the Body of Jesus Christ and the Bride of Jesus Christ. The closest we get to the building image is found in 1 Peter 2:5: “And now God is building you, as living stones, into his spiritual temple.” (New Living Translation) The Apostle Peter reminds us that we are a “spiritual temple” composed of “living stones.” Now the church in the first century understood and embraced this concept fully because they did not possess church buildings. Acts 2:46 tells us that “They worshiped together at the Temple each day [and] met in homes for the Lord’s Supper.” As the church spread rapidly, Christians would meet wherever they could find space: homes, fields, etc. And when the Roman Empire persecuted them, they dug holes underground called catacombs. (I have toured these subterranean dwellings near Rome and it was an unforgettable experience!)
Ironically, God’s people have oftentimes seemed better off without official buildings. In China, where Christians are currently persecuted, (along with other religious groups) Christianity is exploding. And it is due to small groups of believers meeting in homes or secret places to worship and fellowship. They don’t have the option or resources to invest large sums of money into buildings. They meet where they can, when they can. I must admit, there is something refreshing about that.
All of this helps me refocus my energy and attention onto people. Because after all, that is the heart of Christianity: a relationship with the Triune God and with people. No buildings required.