When I was growing up, I belonged to and served a church that met in an elementary school’s cafeteria. Being part of a church plant for most of my young life significantly formed the way I understood “church”–I was a Sunday School teacher for elementary students sometimes, though mostly I played guitar on the worship team. A high schooler was able and allowed to help lead the entire congregation in worship, or to plan and lead a Sunday School lesson, because there weren’t a lot of other people available to do it. I was given the opportunity to lead and to teach before I was able to drive!
Somehow, ten years later, I’ve ended up serving in a church with a huge, impressive building, though I’m still leading worship and teaching Sunday School.
There’s a great energy, freshness, and openness in church plants, young church communities, and groups not saddled with an arduous history or heavy buildings. The groups are lithe, flexible, not constrained by the past or by mortar.
So why shouldn’t all churches, all church groups, all faith communities, be new and fresh and young and building-less?
After the flood, God promised humanity that he’d never again destroy the earth by water, he’d just deal with whatever evil schemes and habits we humans came up with, he’d work with what he had. I wonder if our old buildings and old-faith-community-habits are sort of like that–baggage-y and frustrating, perhaps, but also demanding continuity and faithfulness of us, the people who come later on.
The leaky, traditional, literally inflexible building in which I now work and worship is beautiful–there’s really no question there. It’s been excellently restored by master craftspeople, and it serves as a stunning backdrop for weekly (and daily) worship. Part of the reason I became Episcopalian was because I realized that God is the epitome of beauty, and the way that Episcopalians worship emphasizes that truth.
In past ages, Cathedrals were built over the course of a lifetime, with the skills of hundreds of artisans offering their greatest gifts to the glory of God. Houses of worship are a place where the talents, skills, and gifts of God’s people can be offered back to him, and where those of us who aren’t as artistically gifted can enjoy and affirm these gifts which help us to see God’s beauty a little more clearly.
Ecumenical efforts to serve the poor are a vital part of the ministry of Christ; honoring God’s beauty and the beauty he instills in human hearts is vital too. In an age where efficiency, economics, and perception hold such sway, abundant beauty is especially necessary to help humanity understand God–what better place to experience heart-rending beauty but in the sights, sounds, and words of a church service?