Had you asked me five years ago what my ideal church building would be, I would have replied, “A warehouse.” Functional, non-religious, large – that was it. Ask me today and I would say, “A traditional church building.” Why? Partly for missiological reasons. As even the unchurched tend to have an awareness of where church buildings are due to their architectural distinctiveness it is often far easier to invite friends to things that are happening in such buildings. When you say, “It’s happening at St So-and-So’s” they are more likely to know where you mean than if you are trying to give directions to your nondescript warehouse on the nondescript industrial estate on the edge of town.
That is part of the reason, but another, and perhaps larger one is that I have become increasingly sacramental and grown in my appreciation of the significance of symbols. This appreciation begins with the most important symbols of all – the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
As I have previously observed, confusing the symbol with the thing signified is a constant danger for the Church. We see this in both ‘high’ and ‘low’ expressions of church. High churches can seem to make so much of the ritual of infant baptism, or the beauty of the eucharist, that what water, bread and wine actually symbolise is lost. The symbol gains within itself a significance that obscures that which is meant to be signified. In low churches, things look different, but reflect a similar confusion – believer baptism and communion being reduced to the merely symbolic, with no sense of the power present in the thing signified.
As I have given more thought to these things I have moved from an essentially Zwinglian position to a more Calvinist understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I have also deepened my understanding of the spiritual power and significance of baptism. I now see them much more clearly as not mere symbols but as matters of real spiritual power. They are truly objective, and they are essential. Baptism really is part of the ‘salvation package’ and the Lord’s Supper really is a moment in which we feed on Christ. To downplay baptism to the level of, “It’s good, but the thief on the cross wasn’t baptised so it doesn’t matter too much if you are” is to entirely miss the point. To make our worship services more about the style of songs we sing than the Saviour who feeds us is also to miss the point. So I find myself making much more of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and really expecting Christ to minister to his people through them.
The thing is, once these moves are made it becomes easier to see the power of other symbols, such as buildings. Even though these things are by no means sacraments, they can be sacred.
I still believe that church = people. I still think that there is a sense in which buildings are just buildings. I still detest religiosity that turns church buildings into museums. I would be more than happy for my church to worship in a warehouse. (Anyone got a large sum of cash they want to give me so I can buy one?!) I also have no objections to meeting in a bar, nightclub, college lecture hall, or whatever, and in some contexts would deliberately choose to do so. But I would be very happy were we to be given the use of a beautiful old parish church (or even an ugly old gospel hall).
As well as the pragmatic reasons of the visibility of such buildings there is something sacred that buildings can represent. Buildings tell a story – architecture really does matter. We all know this instinctively, and it was proved decisively in the modernist post-war experiment that saw people crammed into very functionally rational, but soul- and community-destroying tower blocks. We are physical creatures. We live in a built environment, and will do so eternally. This stuff counts.
I am writing this while attending a conference a few minutes’ drive from the ruins of Ephesus. Yesterday I stood in the spot where Paul’s companions stood as Demetrius and his compatriots chanted on and on, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19) The very physicality of standing in that place sent a spiritual shiver down my spine! The story of what happened in the Ephesian arena that day has become part of my story, and the physical space in which it happened matters. Similarly, a church building can become sacred because of the place it occupies in a community, physically speaking, and in the human stories it represents.
When a church building is knocked down and turned into flats, or becomes a supermarket or bar, that physical space is almost impossible to claim back. The spiritual stories it contained, and the story it told, are lost forever.
On one level this is not a problem. The church is people, not buildings. We are a spiritual house, not a physical one. Yet we are physical beings, who live in buildings and whose lives revolve around physical space. The spiritual house must occupy the physical and when we lose our physically prominent buildings we also lose something of our spiritual witness.
Five years ago when I moved to pastor the church I currently lead I imagined we would move out of our building and find a warehouse. Our building has no architectural merit. It is not a thing of beauty. If we could we would redevelop it radically – and were actually pursuing such a scheme until it became clear that it was not a financially justifiable project. I wouldn’t leave it though. It is a physical presence, embedded in a physical community, which has been there since that area of town was developed 90 years ago, with a history and stories to tell. In that sense it is sacred, and far more valuable than the mere economics of land and bricks. It wouldn’t be morally wrong for us to sell it to a developer for housing, but if we did so something sacred would be lost.
So my dream has changed. I’d love a warehouse, but even more I’d love to redeem some sacred space and see empty church buildings filled with a living temple again, rather than disappear under a developer’s wrecking ball.
Some friends of mine in Chicago are doing exactly this. Their story inspires me – perhaps it will you, too.