I love debating the topic of church buildings because I can see the merits of both sides. I like discussions with no right answer. I think it leads to much deeper conversation and shows the layers and complexities of our world and the ways in which we relate to God. So let’s talk about the merits of different church buildings, from a simple or modern church building to a gorgeous cathedral with stained glass, and sculptures, and candles, and a giant organ?
I’ve talked with many people who say worship and Sunday services and connecting with God are not about the building. A modest church or house or even a public space will do just fine for church. I agree! And what is the church after all? It’s not really a building, but the people who enter it, the people who serve God and follow Jesus. We’re the church. We’re the bride of Christ. It’s about God and our relationship to him.
Sidenote: When I led youth group with Chad and some friends, we did a great activity and lesson with them about this very topic. I brought in photos of all different kinds of church buildings, including our own church building and asked the teens, what is church? We also had a photo of our congregation and our youth group to make the point that we’re the church, not the bricks and rafters that hold a roof above our heads.
Back to the debate… why spend money and resources on building and maintaining an ornate cathedral or chapel when a small, plain structure does the trick? Sometimes the intimacy of a home or a modest sanctuary can make you feel so much more connected to our loving, intimate God. And it’s no secret that the ornate cathedrals of Europe are much emptier on Sundays than used to be and are now more like tourist attractions than sacred meeting places. The intimacy of a home church can make people feel more in touch with God and each other. And the conveniences of modern churches, with nurseries and bible study rooms and cafes for getting to know each other really make a big difference for some.
But I understand the other point of view too. I’ve been to a plethora of those gorgeous cathedrals in Europe. And I’m a sucker for beautiful stone structures, lit with the gentle glow of candles or sunlight beaming through stained glass windows. Every time I walk into a cathedral, with it’s vaulted ceilings and intricate designs, I think, yes, God deserves this beauty and this effort. I think, God is so big, he needs a big building to help you feel that immensity.
And after all, God instructed Moses to build such an ornate and specific structure for the tabernacle (Exodus 25 and following for several chapters) using all the best materials: gold, silver, bronze, material of blue, purple, and scarlet, acacia wood, and incense and spices. And later, King Solomon built the temple with intricate carvings and pillars and bronze basins and beautiful woods (descriptions beginning in 1 Kings 6). An argument can made that God desired a beautiful and holy place to dwell.
In the end, it’s all about connecting with God. And if you can do that in a beautiful cathedral from the eleventh century, that’s cool. If you can do that in the modern, but comparatively modest surroundings of a twentieth century evangelical church, that’s cool, too. If you can do that in a forest surrounded by all the beauty of nature, where the trees vault to the sky in their own holy way, then go seek God there. If you can do it on the bus on your way to work, then follow God to the bus stop.
Is it about the building? No. But can the buildings invoke the bigness, the holiness, the grandeur of our God? Yes, they can. Can the buildings remove the distractions of everyday life, and focus our minds on the cross (which often hangs above our sanctuaries)? Yes, they can. Can the buildings bring together a community of servants to hear the word of God and worship his holy name? Yes, they can. Each type of building in its own way can bring us to God, sometimes emphasizing one of his many varied traits. And for some, no building can give a greater connection than any other and it’s all about the people and the spirit and the prayers.
So tell me, how do you feel about your church meeting place? In what ways does it help you connect to God?
2 thoughts on “It’s Not About the Building”
This is a tough conversation as there’s a great argument to say it isn’t about the building–that the Church is the people, the body of Christ. However, there are clearly many people to whom the building is crucial. As you touched on, to some, the childcare facilities might make it or break it. Maybe that’s because (and I hope it is) being confident in the childcare takes away a distraction that keeps them from focusing more clearly on God. I don’t have children so I wouldn’t know.
On another note, I am in awe of cathedrals not only for their grandeur that does cause me to look to God, but also for the immensity of what it meant to build such buildings. Many of them took decades if not more than a century to erect (think multi-generational). And this required a vast commitment from various sectors of society to support. Yes it can be argued that this time and money could have been spent on the poor (for example, many argue the Catholic Church could sell the Vatican and use the money for aid organizations). But just like you said, God desires us to seek to honor Him in all we do, including architecture and construction. What better way to devote your life than to building something to glorify God?
Excellent expository questioning of what church is and how buildings relate to connection with God.
I admire the grand cathedrals. Art and art history are passions of mine so when I walk into a stone building, centuries old, with stained glass windows and candles lit, I stand in awe. I think of how the building I’m in reminds me of the tabernacle. God dwelt in the beautiful place.
Perhaps it has changed slightly because, through the Holy Spirit, God now dwells in us. Humanity, despite depravity and sin, is beautiful. We are made in the image of God. I like the buildings of old, but can see the intimacy with God at my warehouse church too. I encounter God when I gather with two or more believers to worship.
You are right it isn’t about the building but the body that fills that building. I also agree that there is something remarkable about the cathedrals. So I guess I can see God in any building or at the bus stop, for our God is everywhere and when his people seek him they’ll find him, whether in an alley or an abbey.