The Bible often compares churches to buildings (e.g. 1 Peter 2).
Which can sometimes sound a little odd on ears brought up on the resounding cry that the “church is the people not the building.” I appreciate that we probably needed the refrain, I live in a country dotted with beautiful relics of ancient churches. Many of them still preach the ancient faith, and others are converted into homes or bars.
But the church is a building. Or, perhaps better, as Daniel Strange recently compared the church, a ‘do-er upper’, a renovation project.
I know a little about renovation projects. Strange’s point was that in our disappointment at the failing of many churches, we should think of her not as a pristine temple—if we did then the Church has seemingly failed in her entirety. Instead we should think of the Church as the project of slowly renovating a dilapidated building. Perhaps the foundations are in, and the ground floor walls are up, but we haven’t got the water or the gas connected yet.
The analogy appeals to me: I know what it’s like to live in the dust of your own making, and to have to drain the vegetables you’ve just boiled in the garden because you don’t have a working internal drain. It works in two directions, historically it might seem like the Church’s greatness is long over, and instead we should see her as ours to restore. Psychologically we read we are living stones, but if we’re honest with ourselves we’re all bruised bricks, charred and smoke-kissed. The church needs restoring, and it will be the work of generations.
Here are seven ways to explore that analogy.
To start a project you have to take it back to the bricks. That’s how you can see what’s sound and what’s not. Deconstruction—though not everything that passes under that label—is necessary. Some of the plaster might be sound, you’ve still got to look at the walls. But, taking the walls out without great care and thinking about where the weight goes is really dangerous.
We do need to explore our cultures and our doctrines regularly to check that they are up to the task they’re given. This doesn’t presuppose that they are bad, but you have to look.
Expose the rot
When we did this task, we found woodworm riven joists that needing replacing in two different places in our home. It’s deeply depressing to find out that something that you can’t normally see that supports your floors is unsound and likely to give in. But it’s better to do that than fall through the floor and the asbestos in the ceiling below.
We replaced them. I took the asbestos out too. Both jobs require care, and different kinds of care. When we restore the church to her glory over the centuries to come we will have to do the same thing, expose the rot and carefully remove it, replacing it with something stronger.
Of course there might not be any rot—praise the Lord! I don’t think presupposing this is helpful, but we’ve seen enough examples of churches imploding under the weight of toxic culture, or strangely applied doctrines, or teaching that sounds like the Bible but isn’t, that it’s worth a regular check.
We made our house bigger. It’s good to make the Church theologically ‘bigger’ as she moves towards maturity. We’re talking less here about increasing the size of the church through conversion—though clearly that’s part of our mission—because we’re taking a longer view, we’re talking about doctrinal development as the cultures we live in give us new questions which require us to search the scriptures. We seem to live in an age that’s going to require us to develop together a robust theological anthropology—to better articulate and deepen our understanding of what it means to be human.
But sometimes people put terrible extensions on. They make no sense with one room out of another, or they don’t fit what they love to call on Grand Designs ‘the vernacular’ of the building. They aren’t sensitive to its period or style, they’ve ruined the aesthetic. It’s the same in the church, ‘extensions’ that aren’t in keeping with the Bible’s teaching and aren’t growing out of its story and doctrine are monstrosities for future generations to tear down. Let’s not do that.
Preserving and conserving
Our house is old enough that it should be full of original features. It isn’t because someone else tore them out, but we’ve restored chimneys and chimney breasts, and make sure exterior details are replicated. We’ve taken some of its quirkier features and repeated them in newer parts of the house to attempt to preserve its soul.
To build the church involves a dialogue with her ‘original features’, with the parade of saints. It requires us to know we are ‘pygmies on the shoulders of giants’ as Anthony Thiselton frequented reminded me in his hermeneutics classes. It requires what we might call ‘retrieval’ or ‘ressourcement’.
In simpler terms, pastors should read the Church Fathers. We should read the Medievals. We should be aware of where we’ve come from and make sure what we do is in keeping with the original design and the ‘additions’ that have stood the test of time.
Don’t have the temerity to write about the Trinity without careful time spent with Gregory of Nazianzus.
Building a house involves endless compromises between the perfect and the good. Especially when you’re doing it largely yourself on a tight (read: non-existent) budget. Which sounds much like building the church, really.
I’m in some ways a natural idealist, and I’m hardly going to preach pragmatism when we’ve seen the mess it made of so many churches in the last century, but there is a time to be pragmatic. We can’t do everything, and the best we can manage is the best we can manage.
I’m preaching to myself here, but attacking the Church for problems that can’t be fixed doesn’t help anyone. Fixing problems that can be? That’s the mission.
Our house as I write remains unfinished. I hope that we get there soon, but I wince when people ask me if it’s done yet. There’s a weighty burden to this sort of project that doesn’t seem to be understood by those who haven’t lived through one. Building the church is like that. It’s slow. It’s careful. It’s largely by hand.
And, it won’t be finished in our lifetimes—or at least we imagine not. We are, most likely, building for a distant goal. So she will remain unfinished.
For the ages
The church remains unfinished. What we build is not just for us, but for centuries of people after us. What we build is the hope of the world, worthy of much love as Jesus’ bride, which is why we have to fix the rot and shore up the foundations. She’s worth it.
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