Some have taken the opportunity presented by the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 to say things like, “Good! We can finally get the church out of these buildings!” While I believe that it is important to look for positives in difficult situations, I feel the need to point out that this is actually *not* something to be thankful for. Since the goal of not gathering in buildings is to promote social distancing, there is *no way* that this can be considered good. It’s true that the church can focus on increasing its social media presence at this time, but social media engagement simply cannot in its present form replace the intimacy provided by proximity. I don’t know someone by knowing them over Facebook; I know them by interacting with them in real life.
Some are excited though not by the whole social distancing thing but by the idea that we can now finally experience what some perceive to be the purest form of Christianity: worship in homes. Given that the size recommendations for gatherings seems to be trending downward and that, again, the goal of the CDC and the government at the moment is to *limit* proximity, the same restrictions that keep us out of church buildings ought to keep us out of each other’s homes. Setting that aside though, if buildings are such an obstacle to true Christianity, then it shouldn’t take a virus to get us to abandon them, should it?
What about the First Century Church?
Let’s pause first and evaluate the idea that buildings are not desirable. “The first century church didn’t have them! They met in homes!” someone cries. Well, the first part is definitely true; Christianity didn’t have the legal status or possibly the resources to build buildings. Most local congregations *weren’t* like Jerusalem but were rather small in size. The second part though is only partially true. The church did meet in homes, but not exclusively. They met in the temple (Acts 5:42) and synagogue (e.g. 17:17) when they could. When they couldn’t or were no longer welcome, they might meet in homes, but they might just as well meet in a school (19:10) or an “upper room” (20:8). Even with the limited data we have from a mission-work oriented book (Acts) and a few brief mentions in the closing to Paul’s epistles, we know that meeting in homes wasn’t a formula.
What about the Lord’s Money?
“But buildings waste so many resources!” someone shouts. At times, they do. Far too often. As a former missionary, I have really struggled with the imbalance some groups place on buildings. I’ve walked through ornate buildings worth hundreds of thousands of dollars utilized only 4 or 5 hours a week and been told, “Sorry, we just don’t have the resources to support your work.” It’s not gotten much better at times as a located preacher in the USA. I’ve sat in leadership meetings where virtually the only topic of conversation was the building and where decisions were made to divert resources from worthy causes to keep the building going. There’s no doubt in my mind that in many places the Lord’s money is not getting a good return on investment through buildings, that they’re too often underutilized, and that they’re too often objects of fixation.
The Desire to Build
Before we write off buildings altogether though, allow the rest of Scripture to speak. It’s not an overstatement to say that God’s people have always wanted to build something for Him. The patriarchs built their altars and monuments. The Jews were instructed to build a tabernacle, but that wasn’t good enough for David – he wanted to build God a house. Though God made it clear that He never asked for a house (2 Samuel 7:7), He also made it clear He was pleased with David’s heart by blessing him (2 Samuel 7:8-16). God allowed David to achieve his desire through his son Solomon and honored the house Solomon built with His presence. Sin saw that temple destroyed and the people of God scattered; however, whenever and wherever they could, the Jews built synagogues, public places to assemble and worship God. When some Jews finally returned to Israel, the prophetic ministry of Haggai and Zechariah bears witness to the fact that God actually commanded them to build a house of worship again.
At their worst, buildings can be viewed as leeches, draining the church of her time and her resources. At their best, buildings are testimonies of the love and appreciation people had for God, of their desire to build something for Him, and of their willingness to sacrifice. At times, that love and appreciation belonged to previous generations, and at times, it puts the love and appreciation of today’s generation to shame.
Buildings, Homes, and Unbelievers
On top of the testimony buildings provide of a group of Christians determined to rise up and build (cf. Nehemiah 2:18), they offer tremendous advantages. Buildings allow the “uninformed” (1 Corinthians 14:16, 23-24; “outsider” in ESV) to come to our assemblies and observe, just as they did in the first century. Homes may provide the same opportunity but present a greater obstacle to those who don’t know us very well (try inviting strangers or near strangers into your home sometime – I have – it doesn’t often work in my experience!). Buildings give the church an appearance of permanence in the community, communicating, “We’re here for God, we’re here for you, and we’re here to stay.”
Earlier I mentioned that the New Testament offers no pattern regarding the “where” of assembling. I believe that is by design. God knew that societies and cultures would change. Could you imagine an uninvited guest coming to dinner at your house, not expecting to be fed but expecting to listen to the conversation between you and your invited dinner guests? No? And yet that’s exactly what happened at the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). Homes were far more open in the first century world than they are today.
Again, someone argues, “But homes should be open!” And yes, they should be. God expects the leaders of His church to be hospitable (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:8), and leaders aren’t good leaders if the behavior that’s expected of them is not impressed upon those they lead. God not only expects this of leaders; He expects each of us to show hospitality to each other (1 Peter 4:9) and to strangers (Hebrews 13:2). However, God does not expect strangers to overcome societal and cultural barriers, such as our societies’ aversion to the idea of entering a stranger’s home, in order to contact the Gospel. The church is supposed to accommodate the lost where it can, not vice versa (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and I think early Christians understood this. Remember, they met in the temple – public places – and from house to house (Acts 5:42). It’s a both/and situation, not an either/or.
I’ve worshiped in buildings owned by the church, in rented facilities in recreational halls and schools, and yes, in homes. I can honestly say that there is nothing more inherently sacred about worship offered in a house and nothing more inherently sterile about worship offered in a building. Sacred worship is offered by sanctified hearts; sterile worship is offered by hearts that do not truly understand God and His blessings. In fact, I worshiped once at an illegal home gathering in Vietnam. I didn’t think to ask them if they thought house churches were better, but a few of them volunteered the fact that they wished they could have had a building and could have worshiped in the open. It’s the privilege of the free to take the blessing of a building for granted.
I hope COVID-19 has the opposite effect that many hope it has. I hope it causes us to have a newfound appreciation for church buildings and gatherings within them. I have little doubt that God will call those leaders who have squandered the church’s money on buildings to account, but I also have little doubt that God is proud of leaders who have used church buildings as a resource to their fullest extent. I hope COVID-19 leads us to return to our buildings if we are blessed to have them committed to making them hives of evangelistic activity, centers of edification and fellowship, and fountains of benevolence.