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Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Church is Like an Airport

Buildings are so integral to the church that it’s hard for us to think of the church apart from them. As much as we like to say that “the church is people,” we’re still pretty tied to our
buildings. When someone says “That’s my church,” they don’t usually mean a group of people, they usually mean “The churchy looking structure on the corner.” And sadly, the closure of a church building usually means the end of the congregation that meets in it.

Our attitude to our buildings influences our understanding of the church, and vice versa. For the first centuries of Christianity, there were no church buildings. Churches met in the homes of wealthy members, and the main image of the church was the household, the oikos, or extended family.

When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the church adopted the basilica, or imperial court house, as the model for its buildings. These buildings conveyed the pomp and circumstance of the newly powerful church.

In the Middle Ages, soaring Gothic cathedrals expressed the soul’s heavenward ascent to God.

In the Protestant Reformation, churches were constructed like lecture halls, with the pulpit acting as the teaching podium from which the educated pastor instructed the congregation in scriptural doctrine. 

After World War II, the nuclear family was seen as the foundation not only of society but of the church, and church buildings were constructed to be like homes, with big kitchens, parlours and gathering rooms for all ages.

So buildings aren’t just functional. They also make a deeply theological statement about how we see the church, and perhaps even God.

For much of the 20th century, the church building was seen as a destination. It was the place to which people were attracted by the quality of preaching, music and programs. The life of the church was contained in the building, and people were expected to come in if they wanted to be part of that life. This is still an extraordinarily powerful impulse, especially among those of us who remember that church. It’s very hard to let go of the idea that our main task is to attract people into the building. It’s also an increasingly painful impulse as we find it harder and harder to convince people that the church is an attractive destination.

More recently, we have seen a reaction against buildings: “Let’s get out of our buildings and into the world!” Some advocate selling all of our buildings and giving the money away because all those bricks and mortar are just a millstone around our neck. Our buildings keep us from faithfully following Jesus, they say.

But there is another way to look at buildings. I got this idea from Reggie McNeal in his book Missional Renaissance: Changing the Scorecard of the Church.  McNeal says that the church ought to be like an airport. Its purpose is not to be the end of people’s journey, but to
help them get somewhere else. The church, he says, is a connector, not a destination.

If we thought of our buildings in those terms, then we would not see the church as being confined to the building. People would come to the building in order to be connected to God and to one another, to be inspired, encouraged, healed, formed, not so they can settle down and stay, but so they can continue their journey.  Most of the church’s life would be lived outside the building, where people live out their faith in their families, their places of work, their neighbourhoods and communities.

If we were to see the church in this way, we would continue to recognize the importance of buildings as gathering places, but we would be under no illusion that the point of being a church was to keep this building open. Or, that our main mission was to get people into the building.  We would be more readily able to let go of them when they become too much to manage and more creative in finding other accommodation. Perhaps it would be a building we share with another congregation, or a rented space, or someone’s home. We would still recognize the need for that meeting place, but we would see whatever building we had as simply a connector to help us get to someplace else.

A building is no more the point of the church than an airport is the point of a trip. But, like airports, buildings can play an essential role in helping us continue our journey of faith.

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