“The Most High does not live in houses made by men,” declared Stephen (Acts 7:48). And even though these words infuriated his accusers, he was only echoing the consistent message of their own Scriptures (see, esp. 2 Sam 7:5f).
To this day, Christians seem to doubt Stephen’s words. True, they may pay lip-service to the idea that the church is a ‘people’, not a ‘place’. But ‘holy’ buildings still feature far more prominently than they ought, given the consistent teaching of both Old and New Testaments.
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves that, in the words of John Havlik
It is true that every human activity needs to happen in some kind of space, and it is also true that that space (be it kitchen, garden or factory) needs to be appropriate to the activity. Christians need to meet, and their meeting-places need to be suitable. But that is a far cry from saying that the places where Christians meet are ‘sacred’ in themselves, and that design, decoration, furniture, and ritual should reflect that ‘sacredness’.
Howard Snyder has made a rather devastating critique of church buildings. They witness, he says, to our
- immobility. The gospel says, ‘Go’, but our church buildings say, ‘stay’. the gospel says, ‘seek the lost’, but our buildings say, ‘let the lost seek the church’.
- inflexibility. The layout of the sanctuary allows for active participation only by a few. The architecture and the amplification system determine that communication is largely one-way.
- lack of fellowship. Church building may feel worshipful, but they are not usually friendly places. They are uncomfortable and impersonal. They are not designed for fellowship: homes are (cf. Acts 2:42).
- pride. We want our church structures to be beautiful and well-appointed. We do so on the basis that ‘God deserves the best’. But this may well be a rationalising of our own pride. For a fine church building may well be more attractive to the Pharisee than to the ‘sinner’.
- class divisions. The church is intended to comprise rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, educated and illiterate, black and white. But modern church buildings announce that the education, interests, income, occupations, and social status of their members are far more restricted that should be the case.
Snyder closes his case by suggesting that any church which
- ‘spends more on buildings than on outreach
- holds all its gatherings only in ‘the church’
- puts construction before missions and evangelism
- refuses to use its building for anything other than ‘sacred’ functions
- measures spirituality by the number of human bodies present within the four walls
has an “edifice complex” and is almost totally ignorant of what the Bible means by “the church”.’
New Wineskins, quoted by David Watson in I Believe in the Church, 119f.
Now, it seems to me that many churches have tried hard in recent years to take all this to heart. But the point was well made back in 1902 when a red brick and terracotta chapel was erected in the Norfolk coastal town of Cromer, which bore (and still bears) the following words over the entrance:-
“The Meeting House of the Baptist Church”
That, I think defines it pretty well.