…[S]ince we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
-Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)
Like most everyone, I guess, I watched the fire at Notre Dame cathedral early this week with a mixture of shock and sadness. I thought back to standing in that magnificent building with my wife and son a few years ago, and about how that experience affected me in a way I can't really articulate or explain. As the week went on, other voices reminded me of churches built by black Americans burned intentionally in our own country. I thought of Pilgrim Baptist Church in the Bronzeville neighborhood of my own city, a church that was central to the Civil Rights Movement and that also burned accidentally in 2006.
In truth, I’ve always been interested in churches. I was saddened by those racially-motivated burnings, and by the loss of so much of the history of both gospel music and the Civil Rights Movement at Pilgrim Baptist. I can’t deny, though, that the Notre Dame fire seemed “bigger” to me, somehow. I wondered what it was about an ancient cathedral on the other side of the world that caught my attention so dramatically.
It’s strange that churches interest me. There’s a section of our Christmas tree every year reserved for my church ornaments. I like visiting churches when we travel — historically significant ones, and not so much. I know, I’m a minister; it might not seem like that big a stretch that I’m interested churches. I grew up, though, hearing over and over that “the church is not a building; the church is people.” We didn’t meet at a church; we were the church. We met at a church building. (I still have this compulsion to add the word “building” any time I refer to a structure as a “church.”) The joke was that if you were in a strange town and you wanted to find a Church of Christ, just drive around and look for the ugliest building in town. That would be us. (That’s just as often not true, however.)
I still agree that the church is people. (Not, however, in the same way that Soylent Green is people…) The church in the New Testament, of course, didn’t even own buildings; it doesn’t seem like that happened much for 300 years or so, until Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. I’ve met with the church in homes, schools, and funeral homes. I do believe that it’s a mistake to associate the church too closely with a building, and indeed sometimes it feels like we’d be better witnesses for Christ if we’d just do away with owning buildings entirely. (They certainly cost a lot of money.)
So why in the world did I care about the Notre Dame fire? Why do I run my family ragged visiting churches when we travel? I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I think I’ve figured it out.
Churches — the buildings, I mean — are the history of the church’s — the people, I mean — engagement with the world. People of faith built those structures to say something. Look at the way Notre Dame’s bell towers raise the eye upward, above the life bustling around them. Or the way the bells have drawn the attention of generations of Parisians to the things of God. The art housed in churches reminds us of what earlier generations of believers thought was important enough to be memorialized. The crypts preserve the remains and the names of some of those believers. I think maybe it’s appropriate that one day, when Jesus returns and the graves are opened, a lot of those who died in Christ will awaken in church.
Churches remind us that the church — the people — is a spiritual body that exists in a physical world. They remind us that we follow a Lord who lived in a physical world, and that in fact that’s where our salvation lies. The “pioneer” of our faith blazed the trails and laid down the foundations for us in this world. Our hope isn’t that one day we’ll be delivered from this world. It’s that we’ll be part of a redeemed and restored creation. Building churches seems to be one of the ways we acknowledge that hope, one of the ways we anticipate that day’s coming.
Building a church reminds me a little of Jeremiah’s message to Israel that they should build houses in exile and settle in and be good neighbors. God promised them they’d be going back to the Promised Land eventually. Until then, he wanted them engaged in the world they were part of.
Building churches — buildings — is one way the church — the people — through the centuries has tried to engage with the world around them. Even those of us who look at “the church building” with a utilitarian frame of mind recognize that. As simple as it may be, we still have a building. We still want a building. We still believe that a physical location helps us in proclaiming and living out the gospel of Christ.
As we celebrate Easter this week, we will more than likely meet with other believers at a brick and mortar building. We’ll proclaim our belief again that Jesus was raised from the dead, that his flesh-and-blood body was given life, that a physical stone was rolled away, and that he walked out of a real tomb. We’ll say again that our faith is in a Savior who lived among us, died for us, and was raised to life for our redemption.
And people can come to our buildings and hear us say this. They can hear this story rehearsed again sitting in seats, surrounded by walls and windows, sheltered by a roof. Our voices will echo off drywall or stone or acoustical tile. They’ll see us, real human beings who suffer what they suffer and yet find strength and hope in a Savior who suffered too. And they’ll see, hopefully, how we live among them in the way Jesus did, and that even though our hope is not in this world, we are here in words and acts of grace, mercy, and love.
We’re not somehow more the church when we’re at the building. Neither are we less a church if we don’t have one. God’s work is certainly not confined to “the church building,” or even happen primarily there. Of course, we have the responsibility to be more in our world than caretakers of the edifices we construct.
But let’s be reminded by our Lord’s resurrection that we’re people of the resurrection living in a world of death. Let our presence be real. Let’s not pass through our neighborhoods; let’s build and settle down and be a part of those neighborhoods. May our neighbors know what the insides of our buildings look like. May they feel at home in those buildings, and may they experience there real love and hospitality.
For their sake, may we be the church in our churches.