‘Unless the Lord builds the house’

When traveling through the Netherlands last year, I noticed that in the middle of every village and along many of the city canals were church buildings. They are wonderful testimonies to the church of the ages. It was very moving to stand in the pulpit of my great-grandparents’ church building, which had been modified from Roman Catholic to Protestant. Each building has a story. They speak of heritage and a time when the church was the centre of community life. I see them as testimonies to the past; many are now museums, art galleries and music halls. This shift is happening more across North America too.

In the summer of 2009 I taught in Zambia and walked around the city of Ndola. One area had a central circle of churches. I recall five churches of different denominations, each facing out to the community but with its back to the others. The West brought Christianity and, with it, their Christian brands. Did Zambia need all these Western church buildings and names?

When I was working with two new churches, each one — within the first year — acquired a building. Since they were not traditional churches, neither were the buildings. One was an old grocery store, so our mission statement was about “restoring.” The other was a closed auto dealership. We kept the external “service” sign. Remodeling these buildings was a tremendous community project that built the church more than the building.

Buildings

My wife and I play a game when we are driving. When we see a church building in the distance, we try to guess its denominational affiliation. We are surprisingly accurate because church buildings often reflect a theology or ecclesiology in their architecture.

I now live in and bike around Kansas City, Missouri. There are so many church buildings! On one street I counted six in a row. Some are modern mega-churches. Others are old stone buildings. There are red brick churches of the 1950s, like the one my father built and the one the new Christian Reformed Church here bought. There are house churches and store fronts. There are the colonial structures of Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists. These buildings are now becoming a major source of contention as mainline denominations dwindle and divide. Who will take care of the building when the church disbands? Who owns the building when the church divides? How will they buy the building when the group leaves the denomination?

Church building is in my blood. Shortly before my birth in 1956, my father built the Westwood Christian Reformed Church building in Kalamazoo, Michigan (see picture). He was a carpenter, and this was a labour of love for the church he loved. In the early 1970s when the church decided to build a new building it broke my father’s heart. We soon transferred back to the old family church downtown. I remember him quoting the beginning of Psalm 127, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” How does one know if the Lord is building the house?

Houses

This is the issue King David had. At first he thought there was no question. The Ark of the Covenant was to be brought back to Jerusalem, and he was to build a house for it. The first attempt did not go well, especially for Uzzah. Still David was convinced that this is what he was called to do. Leaders build buildings (just ask college presidents). At first the king’s advisor, Nathan, agreed, but then God spoke to his prophet. The Lord asked whether he had ever asked for a house to be built for him. No. He had tented, tabernacled, with his pilgrim people. Now as they were settling in the land their God wanted to create a home for them. God would build David a house, a royal lineage, leaders that were to create a home for God’s people.

Do church buildings create homes? Sanctuaries or auditoriums are not homes. Pews are neither good couches nor beds. Some church buildings are community centres, day cares, food pantries and counseling offices, but most church buildings are used very inefficiently. They often consume people’s giving and limit their mission. They can become liabilities and stop churches from adapting their ministry as needs change.

Churches could possibly create more homes if we rented auditoriums and built houses for the poor, old, sick and uneducated. We have often done this in other ways, of course: Habitat for Humanity, retirement communities, hospitals, schools. Maybe these — more than our Sunday morning sites — are the real church buildings.

  • Rev. Tom Wolthuis is a minister in the Christian Reformed Church and the Director of Geneva Campus Ministry at the University of Iowa.

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