Friday, November 8, 2013

The design of churches

The late (b)aptist theologian James Wm. McClendon shared a story from his years of teaching the faith.  One of his students was “an architect turned divinity student.”  McClendon recalls that she
wrote her theological honors treatise on church architecture.  Architects like to illustrate what they write. On the cover she drew a picture that summed up the church builder. I anticipated a bold postmodern structure, or perhaps one of the classic buildings of the past, maybe a Christopher Wren church uniquely fitted to its site.

To my surprise, the picture was not a building at all. It showed a baptism. The city church had no baptistery, and had placed in the churchyard a moveable plastic pool of the sort one finds in suburban backyards. It was filled with water, and a small table stood nearby. Around the pool the people gathered; in it, the baptism began.
That was the scene.  The architect-turned-theologian thus elegantly made her point: space for worship is not defined by this or that style, or by buildings at all; it is defined by the gathered people and by the signs enacted in their midst.  (cf. McClendon, Doctrine: Systematic Theology, Vol, II, Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994: 412)
            I love this story for many reasons.  First of all, it makes perfect sense for a Baptist theologian to recount this story when he is the midst of writing about the identity and purpose of the church.  Without the faithful living out the gospel in Christ’s name, there is no church.  We can have all of the grand buildings and structures, erected to the glory of God, yet God’s glory is more fully known in those who follow Jesus as disciples, living out the gospel, which, by the way, has some thoughts on what it really thinks of humanity’s quest for “status”.  
Our best investment in God’s Kingdom/Reign is ourselves, not our possessions.  With worldly metrics, we tend to count numbers and look for whatever it takes to be “successful”. As our General Secretary Roy Medley once put it, he is delighted when he meets churches whom measure “their faithfulness [not] by the brick and mortar they possess but by the lives they help reshape and redeem.” 
            I am continually humbled and delighted by the stories of our churches across New York State engaged in mission with their local communities.  The welcoming presence of a church building provides refuge for those struggling with life challenges.  The compassionate and justice-seeking spirit can be felt among churches supporting the socially marginalized and the economically vulnerable through food pantries, refugee ministry, collaborative partnerships with ecumenical and community initiatives for healthcare, shelter and affordable housing, and the list goes on.  They share the gospel as St Francis of Assisi famously quipped, “Preach the gospel always.  Use words when necessary.”
Sometimes these active congregations will say to me, “Well, we’re just a few people and not much can be done with so few”.  Yet when they share what they do in their local communities, it tends to speak volumes.  I have learned from ABCNYS churches these past few months:  small churches can have remarkably big footprints in their community!  
In the midst of such work, they spend less time worrying about “the brick and mortar” and more about the joyous adventures far beyond the four walls that otherwise tend to define us a bit more than we care to admit.  Getting everybody involved in the ministry of the church is not only “smart”, it is what Christ intended when he called disciples.  He knew no particularity, calling upon all to take up their cross and follow, regardless of who they were.  Indeed, when He prepared to ascend into the heavens above, Jesus gave us a commission to go to the “ends of the earth”, even to those places we would not think or prefer to go, so that all may know the gospel and follow Him.

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