I like to read, and frequently the books that call out to me are books that have interesting titles. I may or may not be interested in the subject matter, but interesting titles have a way of yelling ‘Buy Me! Buy Me!’ One of interesting titles that I’ve seen lately has me thinking about where church actually takes place. 'When the Church Leaves the Building'* by David Fredrickson, is a title that makes me wonder about the future of the Church as we know it, and what impact changing the way we do business would have on eternity.
It’s not unusual to engage people in deep theological discussion, discussions that are Jesus centered, and really don’t leave any room to doubt that the other person is as much a Christian as anyone else. And then in the course of the conversation we ask a horribly personal and apparently offensive question like, ‘so where do you go to church?’ After the pregnant pause we hear all the good reasons to not step inside the building where organized religion runs rampant destroying people’s lives. Of course for many people this is just an excuse because everyone knows that the best tee times are on Sunday morning at 11:00, precisely when churches throughout the world have conspired to start their worship services and ruin pleasant Sundays on the golf course.
So what happens when the church leaves the building?
From an administrative point of view, important things don’t happen. We no longer have a way of counting members and tracking attendance. Offering envelopes must be getting lost because the giving seems to be down. Pastors and staff don’t have a good way of tracking what’s being done or taught, and people simply don’t care about the building and grounds like they used to care.
From God's point of view, important things do happen: the Gospel takes over as the primary reason for being and lives are transformed. And the first lives to be transformed usually belong to people who have been sitting in buildings for far too long and are now out in the world with people that don’t regularly attend church. Then as a result of those transformed lives, other lives are transformed too. People who are afraid to go into the church building get an opportunity to know Christ. People who at one time dared to go into the building and as a result of their effort or curiosity were rebuffed, snubbed, or worse, asked to leave, get to experience the love of God in a non-threatening situation. People who don’t think they have the proper clothes to attend church services are dressed just fine for a hot dog roast, or an afternoon playing football in the park.
Is it church when we go to a nursing home or assisted living facility or a jail or transient shelter and people who, for whatever reason, can’t get to a ‘real church’ hear about God's love for them? Is it church when we hand out hotdogs and water or warm clothing and cold and hungry people get warm and fed, and as a result are a little more willing to listen to you share Christ?
So from my perspective, yes, it’s still church. Even without the building and the altar we can worship** the mighty God who we serve. We don’t have to have hymnals and Bibles present. If we don’t light candles and there’s no organ, God will still honor our worship.
Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to sit in a church building with all the accouterments on Sunday morning wishing that they were on the golf course. He didn’t say stay and do nothing. What he told them was to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that He had commanded them.
‘All the world’ goes a lot further than to the exit doors of our church buildings. Is it church without the building? You decide.
* I’ve read the book, and liked it, but I’m just talking about the title.
** Don’t hear what I’m not saying: I’m not telling you to go golfing on Sunday morning; it’s important to fellowship with other Christians and fellow believers, and even those who are heavily involved in feeding others need to be fed. But some pretty authentic worship can happen away from the traditional building. Just sayin’!