By Paul Koch –
Over the past ten years or so of listening to the experts at pastors’ conferences talk in hushed tones about the slow and sure decline of the mainline denominations or speak brashly about intergenerational ministry and our failure to engage the millennials, the common encouragement of their fears and worries has not gone unnoticed. Quite simply, we are reminded over and again that the way things used to work just doesn’t work anymore. If we are to live and thrive, we need to change. We need to adapt and perhaps even mimic the techniques of those we disagree with theologically so that we remain relevant.
Personally, I’ve always been more than a bit skeptical of such posturing. There was not only comfort but strength in the way things had been done in generations previous. There was a treasury handed down by the saints who went before us that still delivered life and hope to the Church today, and it should be celebrated and embraced. To abandon such gifts would be downright dangerous to the Church’s confession and witness in our current age.
But still, the lure to let go of the past was always dangling out before us. There was a new recipe to be a successful church, and we are encouraged to get on board. One major theme that arose a few years back was the notion of the Church beyond the walls of the church building. In fact, I saw a few video presentations with the theme “The Church Has Left the Building.” Pastors like myself were encouraged to think beyond the brick and mortar building of our individual churches and see the real life of the Church as something that happens beyond the walls of the sanctuary (and presumably the things that happened therein).
We were told that the problem was the strict walls we had established, whether that was confessional subscription, closed communion practices, liturgical worship, or what have you. It seemed that the very things that defined the Church were now getting in the way. The image to be avoided was that of the church that cared primarily about itself, that had established such firm walls no one else could penetrate through, and the focus was more on being exclusive than inclusive, of maintaining our heritage rather than reaching out. The goal was to tear down the walls or at least make them more porous. The goal was for the Church to leave the building.
While this always sounded somewhat exciting, I never really bought into the whole idea. And lately, I’ve been thinking that perhaps this building-less church would only further destroy the fellowship and what it means to be part of it.
The problem that faces the churches today is not that we have built (and inherited) walls that are too high, strong, or rigid. Rather, we no longer treat those inside the walls as one of us. As I see it, the problem is that we begin to treat those within as though they were on the outside, and a building-less church will only further this disregard for our brothers and sisters in Christ. Most members of a congregation relate to those they sit next to on a Sunday morning as they would treat the neighbor down the street that they wave to each morning but don’t speak to because they’ve forgotten their name. There’s respect and common decency to keep up the neighborhood, but there isn’t much else. Certainly, there isn’t sacrifice and confidence, and love.
Perhaps a better idea would be to praise the building of the church, to diligently set out to patch the holes in the porous walls and make a clear separation between those on the inside and those on the outside. In fact, we ought to build firm and bold walls, walls that turn back the attacks of this age and serve as a genuine sanctuary and a firm hold in a shifting landscape. But then we must treat those within the walls as one of us, as ones separated out from the world of unbelievers, as our primary concern. When a brother or sister is in need, they are to be regarded as the greatest in the kingdom, and the strength and protection of the building bend to care for them—to love, clothe and feed them if need be.
Churches shouldn’t leave the building; they need it. They need strong walls and clear separation just as they need one another within.