As we think about the role of church buildings in these times of pandemic restrictions against large gatherings, what does it mean that the Church is the Spirit-dwelt people of God?
Elvis has left the building. That announcement was often used at the height of the quivering-lipped star’s fame to disperse those refusing to leave concerts in hopes of another encore.
A colleague of mine chirped something similar as we mused about the challenges of being church in this pandemic. “COVID has done in a few weeks what churches have been trying to figure out for years – how to get out of the building!”
A few days later we were with families from our church reconnecting in the August sun after months apart. No less than three churches had groups in the same park. “The church,” I observed, “has truly left the building.”
But, I wonder, who will we be now? And, what will we be about?
Many Christians have recently been pleading, like the ancient Israelites, to get back to the familiar Egypt that is the church building. Across the country churches consider various scenarios, honourably following provincial guidelines, while trying to figure out how and if to reopen the church.
Christians, it must be pointed out, are not alone in this. Beginning in May a dispute arose in Mississauga between the city, Muslims and Hindus over whether public gatherings at temples and mosques with outdoor broadcasts of hymns and calls to prayer were permissible in the pandemic. The city granted Muslims an exemption during Ramadan, and Hindus desired – and were granted – the same.
At issue is the use of public space and sounds in a secular, intercultural context. Beneath the surface, however, lies the polarizing impacts of us-versus-them thinking (which can spark ugly conflicts) and I-want-what-they-have clamouring we human beings struggle to outgrow.
From an identity and theological perspective, what’s at issue here is also the place and importance of the sacred building. Do Christians share the same theological view of our temples as our Muslim or Hindu neighbours and friends? If so, we should line up behind them and demand the same rights.
If, however, our convictions are different – which they are since we believe the Church as the Spirit-dwelt people of God is the temple (Ephesians 2:21-22) – then perhaps we should pray, petition and live differently, and with new freedom and expectation, now that the church has left the building. God has never pushed his people out of their accepted boxes without purpose.
The very fact that we think about reopening the church exposes our edifice complex. The church never closed to begin with when COVID slammed the doors on normal. If the churches closed, then we must truly believe there was no first century church at all. They had no buildings to sanitize or livestream technology to maximize. And yet the Spirit of God was leading, forming and deploying Christians like seed among the various demographics and geographies of the Roman world and beyond as God’s “temple” and “living stones” (1 Peter 2:4-6).
Long before there were basilicas, cathedrals, storefronts and campuses the church was open – an “Open Secret” as Lesslie Newbigin titled his 1995 book (a worthwhile re-read in these days). God’s open secret never closes.
If you’re reading this, at least part of you knows the church is not the building. So, why is this all so hard? Why are we pining for the familiarity of Egypt? The answer, it seems to me, is precisely in the familiarity, the dependency on our methods and clergy, the medium that has become the message.
While it was heartening to see three churches in one park, a veritable trinitarian assault on the summer crowds, it was also clear we were still mostly there just for us, each doing our own thing. Our eyes were for one another, which after months apart isn’t bad of course.
But it made me wonder: Now that we’ve been pushed out of the building into parks, backyards and neighbourhoods, who will we be? What will we be about?
Will we still function as if we’re behind the walls that once constrained us? Will we be like the dwarfs in C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, set free only to doubt the whispers of splendour and opportunity surrounding us as we chant, “The dwarves are for the dwarves?” Will we line up to demand our rights to use our real estate and sound systems, inserting our gnashing protests among the cacophony of conflicting worldviews?
Or, will we be something completely other? Will we be the ambassadors of reconciliation? Will we see the people we are among, the conflicts and confusions of this age, with new holy eyes and presence, precisely because the church has left the building?
Phil Wagler is North American network coordinator for the Peace & Reconciliation Network of the World Evangelical Alliance. He's also lead pastor of Kelowna Gospel Fellowship Church, Kelowna, B.C. (Photo of Elvis figurine by S. Hermann & F. Richter courtesy Pixabay.) Read all the posts in this new blog series at faithtoday.ca/reconciling.