Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The church is not a building. Really?

There’s a children’s song, “We Are the Church” that says, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.” It’s a lovely sentiment. Would that it were true.

For many folks, the church is most definitely a building. Despite what we may profess to believe about the church being the people, we give ourselves away when we talk about where we “go to church” or when we say we have a meeting “at the church.”  As the pastor of a church, I push back against this whenever I hear it. I know that the church is not a building. And, I certainly am not called to serve a building. Or am I?

Over the past week, I have dealt with a cold sanctuary and a cantankerous furnace.  I have gone round and round about resolving DSL problems and a lack of internet service to the church offices.  Then there was the issue of no hot water; for some reason the water heater “turned itself off.” Is that even possible? I had to explain to some of our tenants that the broken water fountain they want to drink from is unfixable. I’ve been searching for the best place to buy fluorescent light bulbs in bulk because we have about 50 lights on the fritz throughout the building. On Monday I called the gas company about the odor we could smell on the side of the building and they came and tore the sidewalk up to repair a gas leak. And then, this afternoon I was called to the church because there is flooding in the basement. I discovered where it is coming from when I went into the boiler room and found it filling with water that I have no idea how to stop. All of this in a matter of days.

Holy Trinity is a small congregation with a big old building. A whole lot of our ministry is focused on that building. Something is always going wrong, something always needs attention, and something is always draining our resources, both human and financial. It makes me crazy!

I have to say that the people of Holy Trinity are truly amazing in the way they hang in there and do what has to be done and still manage to do good ministry despite this roadblock that always seems to be standing in their way. But they grow weary of the demands of the building just as much as I do. 

When I first began serving Holy Trinity, we did an in-depth study of the situation. Basically, we were looking at whether it would make more sense to sell the building we’re in and move to a place more manageable, or stay where we are and keep up with the repairs. It made more sense to stay put. So, here we are. 

Of course, the idea we didn’t dare entertain for more than a second was getting out of the building business altogether. I know there are a few churches that have had the courage to do that and I have great admiration for them. Actually, I envy them. If only I could devote as much of my time and energy to doing ministry with people as I do with our building… If only our people could invest their time and money in ministries instead of maintaining a building… If only.

House churches are on the rise -- folks meeting in one another’s homes around a common sense of mission and supporting one another in Christian community without the burden of a building to maintain.  I’m encouraged by this.  Maybe someday Christians in our culture will get over their edifice complex and they’ll really live as if “the church is not a building… the church is the people.” 


Anonymous said...

We're just trying to wind up a huge renovation of our 1921 building that had many of the same problems - water in the fellowship hall, mold in the infant room, drafty windows. We will still not have hot water in the most-used bathroom, and the nice high ceiling had to be dropped 4 feet to make room for ducts and conduit.
But our church is at the center of town, where our founder preached more than 150 years ago. It's beautiful and stately, a center and a magnet for activities - the fairness rally, the start of the MLK march, the annual benefit for kids with cancer, Lenten lunches, youth group sleepovers. No one's house could do all that.
So, for me, church is a building, filled with people, living and doing out in the world.

Nancy said...

Thanks for reminding me of the other side of this argument. Yep, a lot of good things happen in our building, too. I would appreciate it more if we had a building manager on staff, which, of course, isn't going to happen in a small church.