The Genesis of an Idea
A while back I was looking at the Twitter feed of an author I follow. She was posing a question to her followers; what the most beautiful church is you have ever seen. The query elicited many responses, and photos. Every answer was a spectacular church, often of historical note. You can see the many various responses here.
All of this got me to thinking about an experience I had 10 years ago. My wife and I were in San Francisco and, although I had been there many times, we found ourselves on the basic sightseeing tour of the city. One of the stops was Grace Cathedral. As I entered I could have reacted in a secular manner. If I had I would have been struck by the marvel of it all. It is truly an architectural marvel. I am happy to say, however, that I did not react as a secular person, but as a person of faith. As a person of faith I was struck by what I saw. My immediate, and verbal reaction was “too much, way too much”. It may be an architectural marvel, but it was a religious monstrosity.
My reaction has led me to ruminate over the years as to why I reacted the way that I did. I had never really thought about churches, as buildings and what message they conveyed, until then, that is. It struck me, and many will disagree, that churches such as Grace Cathedral are monuments not to God, but to humanity’s ego. Indeed, the Middle Ages are full of examples of one town after another trying to “out spire” the other, by building ever more grandiose structures. This occurs even in our more modern times. It is almost as if various congregations are in some sort of “Chamber of Commerce” competition, using houses of worship as monuments to civic pride.
What Then is A Church
I admit that I am painting with a broad brush, and one should not automatically impugn another’s motive’s. In any event, people can have multiple motives. They can be in a civic competition, yet still be deeply faithful. Nor should we ignore the architectural marvels that they created. Taken on those terms they are indeed impressive. Yet, should we consider them the best examples of churches?
To answer that question we need to ask, what exactly is a church. It is almost a cliché to say that church is more than a building. Yet, ideas usually become a cliche because they are true. Of course church is more than a building. Church is the entire people of God, in all our wonderful, fearfully made diversity and uniqueness. Church is the coming together of God’s people to engage in praise, worship and ministry. It is a part, a key part of our response to God’s gifts of grace upon grace. At its core, church is relationships. Church is a manifestation of our relationship with God, and therefore each other.
Yet, church is in most cases also a building. You need to meet somewhere. You need a physical space to get together in corporate worship, and a place to perform ministry. We sadly saw during the pandemic how crushing it was to not be able to gather in a physical space for corporate, in-person worship. While church is more than a building, it is a building at some level.
What Kind of Building Then?
If we need a church building to facilitate worship, fellowship and ministry, then what sort of building should it be? What guidelines are there for building a structure that provides for the in-person worship and ministry needs of a congregation but is not so opulent as to distract from why we have gathered there. As a starting point I would offer a simple basic country church:
Nothing fancy. Easily identifiable as a church, yet simple enough to keep the focus on God. Obviously urban churches are going to look and feel different. Yet, even in urban areas you can find churches planted right in the middle of a neighborhood. They are completely integrated into the rest of the area, and they typically are modest and functional.
These attributes are the key, I think. Modest in outward appearance, and “extras”. I am not a Puritan, stained glass is cool, and many churches have amazing, beautifully crafted woodwork and statuary. One can easily tell the difference between a church that is humble and modest, and one designed to be a tourist attraction and/or a mini stadium. Any church will need to be functional. It will be large enough to accommodate the size of the congregation. It will need extra space to accommodate the various ministries that go on there; education, fellowship gatherings, food pantries, etc…
Beyond functional it becomes a bit subjective as to what is “too much”. It may be something akin to the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography; One can’t define it, but one knows it when you see it. The point of all this is to keep the focus where it belongs, on God. Only we know for sure when we are acting out of base human motives, like envy or ostentatiousness. However, a good rule of thumb is, when you walk into a church is your first thought about how cool the architecture is, or is it rather, what a sacred, humble place to worship our Lord. If it’s the former, then the builders have gone too far in aggrandizing human ego.
Besides, you know right upon entering a physical structure called a church what kind of place it is. Is it a place of warmth and welcome, are you greeted cheerfully. Does it feel right in your heart, or is it corporate and sterile. There is just something magnetic about the simplicity of a humble country or neighborhood church that simply connects us to God and God’s people the way the Sistine Chapel never will. Ours is a God of the street, the neighborhood, the country market. Ours is the God made flesh, the God of the embrace, the handshake and the warmth of real contact. Our God is not the God of the building tour guide.
The title of this essay refers to all that is really needed by way of a church building. This notion came from a co-worker, who when hearing about our bosses’ role on his church’s building committee blurted out that all you need is a Tuff Shed & a Cross. Amen. If you have that, and two or three gathered in His name, you got yourself a church. As for my answer to the question posed by the author on Twitter, my favorite church is the one I am in at any given moment, together with fellow believers offering worship and praise to our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ.
Praise Be to God