In his sermon at Athens, Paul observed that God “does not dwell in temples made with hands” (Acts 17:24). The Lord of heaven and earth doesn’t need some man-made edifice in which to live. But I sometimes wonder if anyone really believes it.
Over the centuries many Catholic and Protestant churches have invested enormous sums to build magnificent cathedrals and sanctuaries in which to worship. Regarding these as “holy ground,” many folks seem unable to distinguish their religion from their place of meeting. And some of that mind set has spilled over into the Lord’s church. I don’t think most of us revere our meeting house the way many in the religious world do. But there is often an undue emphasis placed on the building in which we meet.
God’s command for Christians to assemble (see Hebrews 10:25) makes necessary a place to assemble. That certainly authorizes the local church to provide a place, which I believe includes building or purchasing one if the means are available. Still, the Bible never specifically mentions a congregation owning a building (or any other physical property). Brethren gathered in private houses (Acts 12:12) and other borrowed or rented places (Acts 19:9; 20:7-8). And secular history tells of early Christians meeting in caves and even tombs when it was necessary.
What’s the point? A local church obviously doesn’t have to own a meeting house to survive. And it definitely shouldn’t center its entire existence around one! But that’s precisely what happens with many of us: We let the building become the focus of our activities instead of an expedient to them.
Too many churches aim virtually all of their planning and spending at the meeting house and related physical items. Isn’t it time to get new song books? How’s the pew padding holding up? Do we need to repave the parking lot? These are the topics that tend to dominate “business meetings” and eat up most of the budget. In contrast, it appears that first-century brethren spent most of their resources to support evangelists and provide for needy saints-things we can hardly do if every dollar and every thought are for some man-made structure.
It’s curious that brethren will pour every ounce of time, energy, and money into things that are used only a few hours a week, while often leaving more important matters undone. Do we feel more comfortable spending $7,000 for new carpeting than $700 trying to reach the lost? Perhaps we view these physical investments as more of a “sure thing.” After all, when we spend a certain amount on new song books, we know exactly what we’ll get for our money. If we spend the same amount to do something as simple as mail out correspondence courses or buy space for a newspaper article, well, who knows whether anyone will be converted or not?
Sara and I have tried hard to teach our children that the church is people, not a building. Maybe it’s time we adults remembered that, too. If a tornado came and swept away our meeting house tomorrow, we would not cease to exist as a congregation of God’s people! We would still have the duty of preaching the word, caring for brethren in need, and building up the body of Christ. And whether we admit it or not, we’d still be able to do all those things successfully.
I’m thankful that God has blessed the church here with a comfortable place in which to worship. It is a help to our work in many ways. But I’d rather see us meet in an open field every week than to forget that it is we who are God’s house (1 Timothy 3:15), not some structure of wood and brick.