Church is Not a Building

Reverend Maureen R. Frescott
October 2018

We’ve heard it said many times before that the church is not a building. The church – the community of faithful believers – is found in the people, and this vibrant, compassionate, loving community would still exist even if you took all of our buildings away. Some would argue that it would not be such a bad thing if
our buildings were taken away. Here in New England, where many of congregations meet in sanctuaries and meetinghouses that are over two hundred years old, there are no shortage of folks who bemoan the fact that so much of our time, energy, and money goes into maintaining our aging buildings. After all, just imagine how much more good could we do as a church if we were spending our pledge income on community outreach, Christian education, and spiritual formation rather than fixing our roofs, updating our fire suppression systems, and painting weather worn clapboards over and over again.

In this modern era of shrinking congregation size there is a movement afoot to return to the days of the early church, when believers met in peoples homes or in the back room of a local shop. Some long-time congregations have even gone as far as to sell their historic buildings and move to renting a storefront, space in a school, or some other multiple use building that allows them to be free of property obligations and thus able to respond more quickly and fully to the needs of the local community. New church start-ups have been known to gather in local bars, in coffee shops, in public parks, and anywhere else where people naturally congregate. Moving outside the traditional church building is especially appealing to those who equate organized religion with stodginess and a steadfast desire for self-preservation above all else.

Having said all this, even these smaller, more mobile congregations need to carve out a “space” for themselves eventually. If they plan on serving a community of all ages and hope to grow over time they need to set down roots somewhere. It isn’t long before they realize that they need a place to store their communion set, their Sunday School craft materials, and their coffee hour supplies. Before long they’ve acquired cribs and toys for the nursery, hymnals and Bibles for worship, and robes for the choir. In our leaner, high-tech age some churches have dispensed with these traditional items, but then they need space to store their projection screens, soundboards, and praise band instruments. And to do the level of community outreach that they seek to do requires a designated space to store food pantry donations, rummage sale items, and supplies for the community suppers. There’s no getting around the fact that an active church community can and does accumulate a lot of “stuff” in the course of doing ministry, and it makes sense to keep that stuff in the location where it’s being used. Perhaps a building is needed after all.

But a church building is so much more than storage space. It is sacred space. It is healing space. It is learning space. It is respite space. It is resurrecting space. It projects the hope of our future and anchors our connection with the past. Whether a building is one year old or two hundred years old, it holds the memory of those who have worshiped and worked under its roof. There’s something comforting and healing about having a familiar space to gather before God, which is why even those who have fallen out of the habit of attending church will come back when they’ve experienced a loss or some other upheaval in their life. Even before we human beings had words to express this pull towards our Creator, we were building altars out of stone and placing offerings of gratitude upon it. God is everywhere, but having a designated space for encountering God seems to be woven into our human DNA.

This is why we put so much love and care into our buildings. This is why we have capital campaigns to replace windows and electrical systems, spend countless volunteer hours tending to the grounds and painting fences, and engage in the never ending internal battle over storage space – deciding what stays, what goes, and what group gets what closet or meeting room, hopefully without stepping on toes or straining relationships in the process.

The church is not a building. The church is found in its people. But the people will always seek to build a sacred and secure home – to worship, to serve, and to find sanctuary, before God.

Peace and blessings,