If you grew up in church culture like I did, chances are you had a moment in which you were instilled with awe for “God's house.” Maybe it was when you were maniacally running through the “sanctuary” (not really sure why we call it that, by the way) or “worship center.” Perhaps you were gently instructed to show proper respect for “the house of the Lord.” My family and I would “go to church” every Sunday morning and at various other times throughout the week for midweek Bible studies, youth group, potlucks, game nights, Awana, VBS, rummage sales and so on. God loved having people over. If you knew someone who needed to meet Jesus, you would bring them to church too. Of course I understood through Biblical teaching that God was everywhere and lived in my heart, but it was also strongly implied through our behavior that the building was where we were the church and where all important church stuff took place. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not a bitter ex-church kid. I loved hanging out at “God's house.” I think there are a lot of good things going on—genuinely redemptive activities—in the typical, building-centric, church model. As I look through Scripture, though, I can't help but wonder if there could be another model that more closely embodies Jesus' intent for His Church.
“You are not the one to build me a house to dwell in,” was God's response to King David's well-intentioned offer to build Him a sweet pad (1 Chronicles 17:4b). Ever since the tragedy of Eden, God has given us glimpses of His endgame to once again dwell among humanity. He symbolically represented His presence among His people, for example, with various structures and artifacts. The first God-house was designed by Him to be extremely mobile. He is a God on the go, after all. By the time of David's reign, the people of Israel had been in the promised land for generations. It seemed like the perfect time to go all out with an upgrade to God's house. After God politely declined David's offer, He made the shepherd king a significant counter-offer. “I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son” (1 Chronicles 17:11b-13a). On the one hand God is apparently giving the green light for David's son Solomon to build the proposed structure, but there is also a sense in which God is looking through Solomon to another “Son of David” and to another “house” to be built. Solomon himself seemed to recognize the limitations of the beautiful building he constructed. “The heavens, even the highest heavens, cannot contain you,” he says to God, “How much less this temple I have built!” (2 Chronicles 6:18b).
Centuries after Solomon's death, David's other Son arrived on the scene ready to get to work. In the second chapter of John's gospel, Jesus referred to His own body as the true temple of God. “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). And when His disciples commented on how beautiful the man-made building appeared, He was quick to remind them that its days were now numbered. It had become obsolete, as the “shadow” is supplanted by the “substance” (Colossians 2:17). Jesus elaborated in a conversation with a Samaritan woman in John chapter 4. He had just described the new Spirit-filled life, which is made possible by His good news. She asks Him to clarify where she should go to worship God. She presupposes that His answer will be one of two possible locations. He, of course, chooses neither. Instead He says, “A time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks” (John 4:21, 23).
The author of Hebrews explains, “Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself...Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And,” get this, “we are his house” (Hebrews 3:3, 6a). Peter says it like this, “As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5). And Paul adds, “You are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Ephesians 2:19-22). We get a prophetic look at Jesus' completed structure, made from “living stones,” in His revelation to John. “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” says John's angelic escort, “And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 21:9b-10). “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God’” (Revelation 21:3).
So what does all this talk about the structure Jesus is assembling have to do with our church buildings and the emphasis we typically place on them? Well, the key ideas that I take away from these passages are as follows: First off, God wants to dwell among His people, the Church! How awesome is that?! Secondly, and this is obvious but hugely important, Jesus builds the Church. Thirdly, the Church is not a brick and mortar building. It is comprised of “living stones,” who are pulled from the rubble and made suitable by the finished work of the Cornerstone. Jesus is the true temple, and it is only by the grace of God that we participate in the structure as an extension of His body. And finally, Jesus' Church is not confined to a building or tied to a geographic location. He means for us to fill the earth with His glory as we collectively declare and demonstrate His Gospel in everyday life. Yet the building-centric model of church often corrals and occupies the Church with its perpetual onsite programs and extensive overhead (measured in both time and resources). I've heard it rightly said that our buildings say “come” while our Jesus tells us to “go.”
I'm not saying the Church shouldn't gather. It's imperative that we do. I'm not even saying that churches shouldn't build worship centers. There is no biblical mandate or prohibition either way. It is documented that the First Century Church met in homes and public spaces, but, in fairness to the current model, there was nothing else available to them. And while he was in Ephesus, Paul seemed to have rented or borrowed a lecture hall for ministry purposes (Acts 19:9). Ultimately, if we become dogmatic about gathering exclusively in living rooms and coffee shops over traditional church buildings we have completely missed the point. Where we worship isn't the issue (to paraphrase Jesus' comments to the woman at the well). Furthermore, I would never want to jeopardize the positive elements currently found in the prevalent model with a mass exodus to nothing. There is a growing counter movement to the building-centric model, for example, that casts off all submission and structure in favor of an undefined and individualistic Christian anarchy of sorts. This is not the “progress” that I am suggesting. Whatever model we embrace, the Church is to be a family, a community, with accompanying obligations of accountability, submission, and service. Given some of the alternate models, I can understand why many Christians passionately defend a continued reliance on our church buildings and their accompanying programs. It's all many of us have known. Numerous people who pass through our doors meet Jesus, are often discipled, and can become genuine followers of Christ. And I certainly don't mean to disparage the numerous hours, resources, blood, sweat, and tears that untold American Christ-followers have poured into the current centralized model. It pains me to think that the questions I’m raising are often seen as most threatening and hurtful to those who are very invested in the current model—faithful brothers and sisters who love and serve Jesus’ Church with all that they are. But if we aim to be faithful representatives of our incarnational King, then we must be brave enough to question some of our arbitrary traditions. More than this, we must be willing to die to our preferences and preconceptions if need be.
The American Church is increasingly living in a post-Christian culture. Statistics show the number of our friends, co-workers, and neighbors who will never set foot in our buildings—regardless of how “current” or “relevant” we make them—is growing exponentially. We need to figure out how to take everything that's going right in the current model (declaration and demonstration of the Gospel: confession/repentance, baptisms, celebrating the last supper together, worship, teaching, discipleship/modeling) and move it into our neighborhoods, common areas, and places of business. It seems that most American Christians believe that faithfully attending and contributing to the weekly gathering(s) encompasses all or most of what it is to be an active member of a church. Our frustrated and exhausted pastors and elders may be preaching “go,” “love,” and “serve,” but the prevalent building-centric model is silently contradicting them with “come,” “sit,” and “spectate.” Or at best, “come and participate in all that goes into our Sunday gathering and midweek programs so that others can come, sit, and spectate.” The less than 10% of church members that typically answer the second invitation and dedicate more than 90% of the time and resources required to maintain the building and programs are often left with so little time or energy that they are unlikely to invite their Muslim neighbors over for dinner or to join a bowling league or book club with Gospel intentions. We have in many ways unintentionally crafted a system that leaves no time or energy for what we most want—what God most wants—to see: That is redemption and restoration, up close and in everyday life, in our neighborhoods and workplaces through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If only we could place less emphasis on our gatherings and put more energy into our goings. We are not called to congregate in “sacred spaces.” We are called to be a sacred people who, like Jesus, bring the good news of the kingdom of God into the midst of a hurting and broken world. This is the nature and function of the house that Jesus built and is building. This is the sort of house that God will dwell in.