I was in Ruiz, Mexico in 1991 with my church youth group. We stayed in a little town, and walked out to an even littler village with straw huts to serve the Christians there. Our main project was to build a church out of cement blocks. We dug a foundation. We mixed up mortar on the ground with a shovel. We ran string lines, and began building the walls, block by block, level and plume – or at least close to it.
As a 15-year-old, I thought I was building a church. But there was a church meeting in this little village before we built that building, and by God’s grace there is still a church meeting in that village today – and given the shoddy workmanship it’s about 50/50 that that building is still there!
The physical stones of a building are not the church.
After generations of God’s people worshipping at the tabernacle, and then the temple, Jesus shows up and says he is the temple of God on earth. No longer do God’s people need one special physical building made of stones to experience the presence of God. Jesus says the presence of God dwells in him. Jesus’ apostles go on to teach that the followers of Christ, the body of Christ, are filled with his Spirit. The temple of God is no longer made of physical stones, but now we, the church, are the temple where the Spirit of God dwells.
You say, “OK, that’s all good and well, but Christians still need a place to gather, and meet, and worship!” That is true. We see this throughout the history of Christianity.
Jesus and the first disciples met in fields, on boats, in the synagogue, in the temple, in homes. In Acts we see the early Christians meeting in the temple courts, in a large upper room, and in Mark’s mom’s house. Paul evangelized and ministered in synagogues, by a river, in the marketplace, in an outdoor amphitheater in Athens, called the Areopagus, where the government council met, and in the lecture hall of Tyrannus, a philosopher in Ephesus, for two years. As the Gospel spread, churches met across the Mediterranean world in the large dining rooms of Greek homes, owned by wealthy church patrons.
But as the church grew, they were kicked out of the established Jewish meeting places and in time, they would outgrow most houses. And so, church buildings came into existence. Initially, these buildings were renovated houses. The earliest historical record of a church building dates from 240AD along the Euphrates river in modern day Syria – it had two rooms, one for the worship assembly, and the other held the baptistery. These locations were not referred to as temples because the emphasis was not on God’s presence dwelling in that physical location, but on God’s people worshipping there.
As Living Hope Church dedicated our new worship center in the YMCA gymnasium on September 27, 2020, we don’t hesitate to say that physical buildings are incredible resources for church life and Gospel ministry. Our worship center is made of masonry blocks. I’m thankful for every one of those blocks. They are keeping the rain, wind, and cold out. And having a sound system makes it really nice to sing together and hear the preacher. Having additional rooms makes it really nice for our children’s classes. But the facility is not the church. It’s not the center of who we are. It is a tool, a resource, to help us fulfill our mission. Having a physical building is a wonderful gift, and Christians should be good stewards of the building, but the building is not a church.
The people are the church. Christianity is more than just an individual salvation, and so we must gather together. We are saved as sons and daughters, by our Heavenly Father, into a family of believers. And this community of faith must meet together in a physical gathering – for worship, the teaching of the Word, prayer, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and fellowship. Having a physical building helps with this, but it can’t be our focus. The building doesn’t define us.
Listen to the Word of God in 1 Peter 2:4-6:
“As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: ‘Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.’”
Let’s be thankful for the physical stones God gives us to gather in, but let’s remember that’s not the church. The center of our gathering is the Living Stone, Jesus. And as we come to him, we are like living stones in the house of God.