Let me make a fundamental point to start with: the Church is not a building, and without wanting to sound pious or clever, it is the sum total of them who love and follow the Lord Jesus Christ, at least according to my considered understanding of the Bible, instilled at the outset and confirmed ever since. In the light of the discussion that follows, it got me thinking about my own tiny part of the Church (Providence Baptist), and how best we should operate.
Some churches, and here my considered understanding of the Bible is that when it comes to defining the local (as opposed to universal) Church, it is a localised gathering of believers in Jesus who meet together in order worship, learn, fellowship, evangelise, serve etc., and in order to do this they need a place to meet, and has very little to do with buildings. But buildings are or at least can be important.
The approach of churches toward buildings varies considerably according to what are their priorities, theological understanding, financial position, circumstances etc. In the early days (first century) of the Church, many met in homes out of necessity and some still do; some met in hired halls and some still do. Some, like what I was brought up in meet in a simple, plain multi-purpose building, with maybe quite a bit smaller added side rooms, so whether it was worship or youth club, this is where the action took place, but at least it was ours to as we will. Other churches are grand, sometimes ornate affairs with all sorts of religious paraphernalia dedicated for worship with fit for purpose rooms to do all sorts of social stuff and can be used for teaching purposes etc. (I am mindful, incidentally, that this is one subject I talked about two years ago).
Why the matter is raised here is I came across an article titled “Dear Joel Osteen”, whereby one American pastor, John Pavlovitz, took to task another American pastor for not doing enough to help flood victims following the recent Houston hurricane, and this is partly about making available buildings, as has many other churches as well as those from other religions. I have to confess that neither Osteen nor Pavlovitz, who one might reckon to be poles apart in their Christian vision, are my particular cups of teas theologically, and yet I concede both are brothers in Christ, who I want to do well.
I know too little about the rationale behind Osteen’s apparent lack of action to judge, and besides which I don’t have the facts nor the remit so to do. So I can only speak from experience and my understanding of what Christ requires of His Church (local and universal). If there is a local parallel; in my own two of Southend (170000 inhabitants) with over 80 churches with buildings, we struggle to find 7 to let us use their buildings as a homeless night shelter during the winter months. As I say, I don’t raise here by way of judgment, for all that are not involved have their reasons and, besides, put their buildings to community use in many ways, and if this were to be withdrawn, the community would considerably lose out. It ought to be added that members of churches do an enormous amount outside their churches that benefit the wider community.
We are called to love our neighbours and if we are Christians that needs to be our priority. How we work this out may well be a big challenge, but it does mean that what we have, including our buildings, all needs to be laid at the Lord’s feet, in order to best serve our less fortunate neighbour, especially in times of trouble. We are also called to do what hit me many years back from a song sung during the “Flower Power” era: “they will know we are Christians by our love” (the very words of Jesus). I was also reminded by the works of Francis Shaeffer on the matter, and it was he that inspired me to wade into the market place of ideas but also earn the right to do so by serving the poor. It would be lovely if Pastor Osteen and Pastor Pavlovitz could put aside their differences and join forces caring for the poor, and if Christians of varying persuasion were to take seriously the prayer Jesus prayed just before he died on a cross (John 17) i.e. to be One, then the world would know that Jesus was indeed sent by God – and surely that should be our main goal.