” . . . the place on which you are standing is holy ground” Exodus 3:5
What are our buildings for? The obvious answer is that they are for the worship of Almighty God, but we have to acknowledge that the desire to worship God sometimes comes second to attachment to a particular building.
The church, particularly the Church of Ireland, has a great sense of attachment to its buildings, and no more so than in rural areas. People might be inclined to give little towards the support of the church’s ministry, and are probably inclined to give even less to anything that might be regarded as mission, but they will find huge sums of money to keep open a building, even when there may be no-one left to worship there. All of us will have encountered the sort of thinking that says a particular building is “our church,” all of us will have encountered people who will only attend worship if it is in their church, even if that means only attending worship once a month. A colleague in another diocese say that where there was a programme of closure of buildings in the 1990s, one-half of those who had previously worshipped in the church buildings that were closed did not transfer elsewhere, they simply ceased to attend worship.
When we look at the Bible we see how through the centuries worship became focused upon a particular building, the Temple in Jerusalem, only for everything to change after the time of Jesus.
In the book Exodus, we see no building is necessary to create a sense that God is present. We read the story in Exodus Chapter 3 of Moses minding the flocks when God’s presence becomes known to him in the burning bush, it is a wilderness place but Moses is told to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Wherever God is present, that place is a holy place, so we read about the LORD coming to meet with Moses on Mount Sinai in Exodus Chapter 19 and the mountain becoming holy.
Moses receives the commandments from God, and Deuteronomy Chapter 9 tells us that they were inscribed on stone tablets that were placed inside a wooden box, the ark of the covenant. If we read Exodus Chapter 27, we see how the covenant was kept inside the tent of meeting. In the books of the Law, the first five books of the Bible, we see how worship slowly becomes focused upon the place where the ark of the covenant is kept.
When King David captures Jerusalem, the ark of the covenant is brought up to the city with great rejoicing, the presence of the ark is seen as the presence of God, and from moving from place to place, the question now arises of building a permanent house for the ark. In the Second Book of Samuel Chapter 7 Verse 5, we read “Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in?” The answer to the question is “no”, it would be Solomon who would build the Temple in Jerusalem. The First Book of Kings Chapter 8 tells of the ark of the covenant being brought into the Temple, which was now seen as the dwelling place of God.
‘The Temple would be the special place of worship until the time of Jesus. It was destroyed when the Babylonians invaded in 587 BC and carried the leaders of the people into exile, and one of the complaints of the prophets after the exile was that people had been slow to restore the house of God. In the prophet Haggai Chapter 2 Verse , we read, “Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?”
The Temple was the focal point of people’s faith, Jesus and his disciples spent much time there. The second Temple would suffer violations, but would survive from 530 BC until 70 AD, when the Romans put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Temple in doing so. The building that people had believed was the dwelling place of God was gone and people were forced to think again about their faith. Many of the early Christians had carried on as members of the Jewish community going to the synagogues, but in 85 AD even that was no longer possible. A prayer against Jesus was introduced to the synagogue worship and the Christians could no longer attend.
What are our buildings for? Long before the Temple was destroyed and the synagogues had become hostile places, Christians had found their own meeting places, the early church met in people’s houses. In the First Letter to the Corinthians Chapter 16 Verse 19, Saint Paul writes, “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, greet you warmly in the Lord.” It was two hundred years later before Christians began to have their own buildings for worship.
The early church needed no buildings to grow rapidly. When the first church buildings appeared, they were presumably because numbers were too large to meet in private houses, but as the centuries passed, the buildings took on a significance that the first Christians would not have recognized.
Why have buildings become special for us when they were not special for the early church? How did the word “church” change it meaning from being a group of people to being the place where the church met?
Reading the Scriptures, Christians saw places where people met with God as sacred places and began to see their own places of worship as sacred, they began to use the language used for the Temple for their own buildings. They read the Scriptures and saw that the Temple had been built with the best of materials because worship meant giving God his worth, giving him the best they could. By medieval times, the great cathedrals were astonishing statements of faith.
Our buildings have come to us as expressions of people’s faith, sometimes the poorest communities would build the grandest of structures. Even the newest of our churches are places that have been hallowed by generations of prayer, hallowed by the worship of people whose lives and whose thoughts we can only imagine. Our buildings have also come to us as places where major events in the lives of our families have taken place, baptism, marriages, funerals. They have come to us as places filled with memories, filled with personal thoughts. When talk arises about a church building being closed, it’s important to understand what that building means.
Closing a church building means a closure of an expression of faith, it is a sign to the outside world that a church community has forever gone from that place, that the generations of prayer and worship will continue no further; it is no surprise that former members drift away. If we are going to keep our buildings, then our buildings must be witnesses to much more than the past, they must be witnesses to much more than the tradition from which we have come, they must be witnesses to a living faith, they must be about the present and the future.
What are our buildings for? If they are about a living faith, then they must be the best they can be, they must be in good order, inside and outside. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, our buildings speak about what sort of church we are: what messages do we send out?
If our buildings are about a living faith, then they must be places where all who come receive a warm welcome and they must be places where there is sincere worship. It’s not about what we do, it’s about the way that we do it; it’s not about the quantity of people present, it’s about the quality of their faith.
What are our buildings for? If they are about the presence of God, then we should take the question very seriously.