Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Houses of God

King Solomon built God a house. He called it a magnificent temple. You can read about it in 1 Kings. It was not all that big, not much bigger than an average size church today. It was decorated nicely, with lots of cedar and gold inlay. It had some nice stuff inside, too. Like a great bronze baptistry and the ark of the covenant. People, other than priests, were not allowed inside. It was God's House, not theirs. Solomon instructed the people to pray toward God's House when they were in trouble and he spells out seven kinds of trouble in chapter 8. God's eyes, he tells the people, will be on the temple and he will (see?) hear their prayers. Solomon did not actually believe God would live in this house. He knew God was much greater than that. Later on, other kings fell into the trap of thinking God was in that Jerusalem temple so it was like having God in your back pocket. He was bound to protect and bless you no matter what. God sent prophets like Jeremiah to correct this misunderstanding but it didn't seem to help. Pretty soon, God's House was gone. The prophets said it was God's judgment for thinking they could keep God in a box. It might have been God's House but God was not going to be reduced to a housekeeper.

When Jesus came along it was said of him that the fullness of God dwelled in him (see the gospel of John, chapter 1). Jesus was God's new House. That is what we mean by the incarnation. So, the locus of God's presence changed from a place to a person. And to persons. After Pentecost, followers of Christ are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. Jesus dwells in us, too. So, the people of God are the house of God, now. Church buildings are helpful but not necessary. The New Testament word for Church is ecclesia which means a local gathering of people. There is no mention of buildings in that definition. In fact, there were no church buildings for the first almost 400 years of Christianity. Then, Emperor Constantine came along and built some big Churches just because he could. Church pews did not become the standard for seating Christians until after the Protestant Reformation when the sermon became such a big deal. Long sermons made for tired bodies. Interestingly, padded pews did not make an appearance in churches until the 1960s. Today, most every new church is getting chairs instead of pews. That may have something to do with Church growth and I don't mean numbers but the size of Christians. Used to be you could figure on every church sitter needing 18 inches of room but now the thinking is more like 24 inches of room. Christians like their space in worship and so you can fit fewer and fewer of us in the average pew.

I digress. Today we are very fond of our church buildings. In fact, when most Christians hear the word church they think of some building. In the beginning, the word church stood for people. Our church buildings say alot about what we think the church is. Most churches are laid out like a book: two pages on each side, a binding down the middle, and margins at the sides. Each pew a sentence, each person an individual word. We come to church to listen to words and to learn. Up in front is a stage where worship leaders and speakers stand. We watch them much like we would a concert or a movie. Function follows form.

What about churches that rent a room in a school or a mall? Or gather in a storefront? Or warehouse ( I gathered with fellow worshippers in a furniture warehouse once)? Or a roofless, dirt floored concrete block building with a few dilapidated benches for seats ( like a church I met with in Haiti)? How are they churches? Is a more modern structure with all the bells and whistles more of a church than a falling down structure with no technological sophistication? Is God more present? What about critical mass? How many Christians does it take to make up a church? Is a bigger church ( numbers now not the size of the worshippers) more of a church? Does it access more of the fullness of God than a small one?

Jesus said, wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am, too. If Jesus is the fullness of God, then isn't the fullness of God available to two or three, at least. So the fullness of Christ is there in a storefront, or warehouse, or the roofless church in Haiti or anywhere else. The building doesn't matter. They are helpful for certain things; they are also a hindrance for certain things. Think of trying to play dodgeball with the youth group in most sanctuaries with pews (on the other hand, maybe don't think about that - it will open a whole other can of worms). Wherever two or three are gathered in Christ's name ( meaning Christ's presence), there is the fullness of God. So, those two or three could be in a gathering of thousands or tens. In a slum or an affluent suburb. In a magnificent cathedral or a rented school room.

I have had people tell me that where they live they have not been able to find a church. No bible believing, gospel preaching church in sight. So, if what Jesus said is true, all they have to do is join one and take along another Christ follower and Jesus who is the fullness of God is there! They are now in a church where nothing is missing (nothing critically important, anyway). Right.

So here's a thought experiment: what if we sold our churches and rented space somewhere for Sunday or whatever day we meet together as the ecclesia? And then spent the money we saved on outreach and taking care of the orphans and widows ( of whom there are many today and I am not talking strictly biologically). Or, if we want, we can keep the church building, and sell off its possessions and use all the space for other ministries ( how often churches build bigger and bigger because they need the space when all they need to do is get rid of some of their stuff). If the church is a gathering of people and not a building, don't we at least need to think about this?

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