In Defense of Spaces

“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Matthew 28:20b (ESV)

Christ spoke these words to his eleven remaining disciples after he had risen from the dead and just prior to his ascension into heaven. This verse raises an important question for the church today, and that is “if he is with us always does it also necessarily follow that he is with us everywhere”? Do our spaces matter? What form should they take? What function should they serve? The issue of the spaces used by churches has come up a lot recently, at least in my small world. I have always had an interest in the spaces that we the church use and doing a documentary on the topic is still on the back burner. What has brought this topic back to the forefront of late has been two interactions on separate occasions; one with a pastor and the second with a theologian/professor.

First, the theologian: A number of weeks ago a well known Professor of Theology from a Toronto Anglican Seminary wrote an article for his school’s newsletter titled “Space Matters”. In this article he promotes the necessity of maintaining the Church building. His basic argument is that you have to meet somewhere and why not make that building a beautiful offering to God. He writes “space where the church gathers should always have something of beauty about it, even if that means no more than flowers before the altar or the lighting of a candle or two”. Another aspect of the article in particular caught my attention:

None of this means, of course, that congregations desperately hang onto their old buildings at any cost. There will be times when both mission and prudence dictate that the congregation “downsize.” Nor do growing missional communities and church plants need to emulate the architectural styles of past eras. There is room for a legitimate diversity here. I would say, though, that a Christian assembly should in no case look like a school gym or a Starbucks or a multiplex cinema. The place where we gather as Christ’s body is (by definition) holy ground.

This portion of his article puzzled me. I go to a church that meets in a cinema. It is a very missional church and a growing congregation. Should is matter where they meet? Or what about Spirituality on Tap or similar ministries that are able to engage people into a discussion about God in a setting people are comfortable in, should it matter?

The opposite point of view has been offered by a pastor friend who wrote on twitter that “Church buildings are like tombstones and the congregations mourners”. I responded with a simple “wow”, somewhat taken aback by his bold statement. He responded by writing that church buildings are “Fancy memorials to a former life.”

To put this in context, my friend works in an urban environment where issues of homelessness are widespread. Also, out of fairness, his view is not completely counter the first, he is not, as far as I know, advocating for the demolition of stone churches – though there are those out there that would. He does however work for a church who meets primarily in movie theatres and make uses of other churches, community centres, and coffee shops, to advance the mission of Christ.

As he clarified his belief through subsequent messages, I realized that the 140 characters available to him on twitter did not fully permit a full explication of his point of view. I wrote that God is pleased with Church buildings “if they bring Him glory.” He believes we should not view a church building as a temple, but rather a tent.

This is an interesting analogy. In the Old Testament the first official “meeting place” ordained by God was the “tent of meeting” (post-fall anyway. The garden of eden was his first choice, but we threw that away, so I’m not sure it’s really the best analogy for our spaces). Following this as religious systems defined themselves the temple came into being. In its very heart was the “Holy of Holies” where God quite literally lived (many a priest would die here, so profound was the experience). Then in the early Christian church the temple was largely abandoned (though apostles did still go from time to time and met in house churches. As the Early Church developed a more formal structure, buildings were constructed (or converted) to serve as places of worship.

Are we simply experiencing another evolution or simply a new understanding? If the church is the people rather than the building, then surely where we meet does not matter as much. If the building does matter though, then what can it add? One of the reasons the Roman Catholic Church insists, under normal circumstances, that marriages be performed in the building rather than on a beach, is a concern for maintaining the sacredness of the event. The space is intended to remind you of what you are about to do, are doing, and have just done. The majesty and sacredness of the imagery invites us to reflect on all God has done for us and that he is very much a part of the wedding and the marriage just beginning. It engages us not just intellectually, but on many levels: smell, sound, sight, even taste (eucharist).

It is possible that we are moving away from an understanding rooted in the medieval-era of what a church building should look like, but that does not mean we should eliminate them just because (or even allow them to die of needless neglect). Maybe we don’t need cathedrals anymore with their vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, and pulpit. On the other hand it would make me very sad to see these beautiful buildings relegated to the history books alone. These are building that took decades to build. The masonry was painstaking and meticulous. Men died for their cause. Their beauty was designed to inspire awe at God’s majesty and beauty and bring us closer to him. Particularly in an era of high illiteracy, communicating the truths of God through art was of high importance. The building’s design communicated that “something important is happening here”, even if you could not understand the latin of the mass.

Are church building’s the only options? No, and to suggest such a thing is absurd (as would be the opposite suggestion). There are many movements of Christians that happen “in the dirt”; that is, in people’s homes, under bridges and in the middle of nowhere. It is not about what the building looks like, but where God is and where we can find God.

When asking the question of spaces however, we must also realize that the choice we make in our space could impact who we are as a church and therefore how we carry out our mission – and even how we view that mission. That is, if we can all agree (I hope!) that Sunday morning is an important part of being a Christian, than what is the purpose of that Sunday morning? Does that purpose require a specific space or should that space be useful and available during the week as well? Should the Sunday morning space disappear altogether during the week, so as to encourage Christians to go out and serve outside its walls?

There are so many examples that I find I must support a middle ground. There are church building that house after school programs, food banks and other worthwhile endeavors. This is clearly a Christ-centered activity. All the same we need churches whose congregants will leave their building and go out into the world and meet people where they are. In Scripture, even though Jesus was out in the dirt, sometimes he went to people and other times people came to him. In either case, a stubborn insistence that either model needs to be applied to the Christian church universal is arrogant and hypocritical. To be sure, we need to be willing to ditch what does not work, even if it means giving up centuries of tradition, but that does not mean it is necessarily so.

It is not about the edifice or the dirt, it is about where we can connect best with God. If someone feels most connected and worshipful with God in a grand Cathedral and that enables them to be a better Christ-follower, then why would we willingly take that away from them. Yes, these buildings take a lot of money to maintain and eventually, as congregations diminish more and more may be turned into condos, but some may well remain for a good while to come and for this I am thankful.

My hope and my prayer is that this divergence of opinion is the result of the continuing influence of the Holy Spirit speaking to church leaders and as such we must be open to the reality that not every expression of the “place and space” of church is for everyone. It is unrealistic to expect certain people to feel comfortable in a traditional church building, but then we must also accept that some people will make a deeper connection with God surrounded by imagery, sounds, and smells that bring them closer to the one who created it all.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Spaces

  1. “If someone feels most connected and worshipful with God in a grand Cathedral and that enables them to be a better Christ-follower, then why would we willingly take that away from them. Yes, these buildings take a lot of money to maintain and eventually, as congregations diminish more and more may be turned into condos, but some may well remain for a good while to come and for this I am thankful.”

    Good answer. Likewise, if someone finds the connection to God in the small space of a home living room better than in a grand Cathedral, we should also not insist on them giving it up.

    As I posed on Twitter, and you mention here, some of what we in the west consider the “sacred space” in the church is rooted in our experience of church as has been the case for 1700+ years. Ever since the formalization of Christianity under Constantine, Christians have moved into special spaces of church buildings, cathedrals, etc. But in cultures that don’t share that experience and have a different experience of finding God at the riverside, or under a tree on the Serengetti, or huddled in the back room of a shop, perhaps to them their concept of that holy space looks different then ours.

    As post-Christendom sets in and a greater percentage of people in our society don’t have that “cultural” experience of the church building, I think we’ll see a shift away from the “special” buildings and into creating deliberate “space” within our other contexts… like coffee shops, libraries, parks, movie theatres, etc…

    I’m with you, though… I LOVE my sacred space of the church with the beautiful art and such. But I cannot necessarily preserve that if it no longer holds meaning for those that I’m called to reach.

  2. Pingback: My favourites and your favourites | The Lonely Disciple

  3. I’ve really been interested in this topic, especially since I studied in Portugal (a dominantly catholic country) and have attended a church plant in Massachusetts that meets in the back of a bar. The idea of house churches also fascinates me. When we hold services in these “common” places we ask God to meet us there and make them holy.

    I hope you do make that documentary.

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