It’s time to just stop it.
As evangelicals, we know that they’re not, of course. Every pastor explains this once in a while in a sermon: “We talk about our church building, but of course we all know that in the Bible, churches aren’t buildings, they’re assemblies, groups of people, congregations.”
Then he chuckles a couple of times and goes right back to calling his congregation’s building a “church.” It saves on having to pronounce two syllables: “build” and “ing.”
I guess that most of us think the confusion is harmless, like saying “Kleenex” instead of “tissues,” “creek” instead of “stream” or “pop” instead of “soda.”
I don’t believe the confusion is harmless. Before you conclude that I’m just a grumpy old man (the jury’s still out on that one), give me a chance to make my case. Here’s why we should stop referring to buildings as churches:
- It contributes to the confusion.
Don’t we want believers to understand that Jesus died for the Church, His Bride (Ephesians 5)?
Don’t we want believers to love the Church, the assembly (the Greek word is ekklesia) of blood-bought believers in Christ?
If our people are going to be confused – and they are – should we as church leaders be contributing to their confusion?
My mother was right. She’d say, “Oh look at that cute little old school house!” (She taught in several of them.) My sister and I would scold her: “Mom, it’s not a school house, it’s a school.” “Well, okay, all right,” she would concede. But mom was right. The building wasn’t the school, the school was the institution that met inside the building.
Bob Dylan was right too. He wrote regarding a character he called the Wicked Messenger, “He stayed behind the assembly hall; it was there he made his bed…” That’s what the building was: an assembly hall; a building where the assembly assembled.
- It contributes to our complacency.
David Womack, in The Pyramid Principle, wrote about what he called the Joshua Predicament, named after the complacency that overtook the Jewish people when the promised land was largely settled. The observation is that groups of people will work hard when they have an important, uncompleted goal or task, and then slack off and lose their enthusiasm when they see their task as almost completed.
Putting it just a bit differently: We need our buildings, but we have a terrible habit of allowing our buildings to turn us from an outward focus (caring about our community) to an inward focus (caring about our property).
- It contributes to our idolatry.
Can church buildings become idols? Oh my, yes!
I’m not suggesting anything nefarious, but some churches need a good fire.
Consider the many mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic congregations which keep their doors open merely to preserve their beautiful building.
Will Mancini nailed it when he said, in his tongue and cheek version of the oft’ misquoted Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people cherish.” Among other things, vision-less churches cherish their buildings, which they, of course, refer to as “churches.”
Here’s a conversation I had with a church member a few months ago:
Brian – “When was this church organized?”
Congregant – “I think they built it in ’65.”
Brian – “That’s nice, but when was the church organized?”
Congregant – “I think they had a church on Main Street before that.”
Brian – “But when did they start meeting, as a church, a group of people?”
Puzzled looking congregant – “You mean, before they had a church? I have no idea.”
Brian – “So, is your building sacred?”
Congregant – “Yes.”
Brian – “Your building seems to be hindering your ministry. Would you consider meeting elsewhere?”
Congregant – “No, I’d leave if they sold the church.”
- It contributes to our truancy.
You probably know that attendance frequency is way down. “Regular” attendance is now considered by many to be about once a month.
If the church is a building, so what?
But if the church is an assembly, a body, a family, then this matters.
The writer to the Hebrews urged his readers to not forsake the assembling of the assembly (Hebrews 10:24,25). Not showing up is like your left leg not showing up tomorrow. It’s like not showing up for the annual family reunion (“Hey! What’s with the Thorstads? Where are they? Are they mad at us?”)
And where did we ever get the idea that we “go to church?” The Christians who assemble together are the church and when they don’t assemble with the assembly they diminish the church. The body is not complete without all of us.
- It contributes to our apathy.
If the church is a building, then the church is complete, whole, sufficient and happy, sitting there empty on Saturday evening.
If we get it right, we understand that the local congregation is a local mission on a particular piece of the mission field known as the world. It’s a fighting force (Matthew 16:18); it’s a military outpost. We didn’t build Pentagons in Iraq and Afghanistan; we put up tents and utilitarian buildings.
Jesus died for a beautiful bride: the Church. He didn’t die for bricks or boards. He died for people.
Let’s stop referring to buildings as churches.