Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, I remember hearing the old cliche, “The church is not a building.” When I was young I felt like this was a revolutionary insight. It was as if some new knowledge had broken through and was going to change everything. The truth is, this wasn’t new knowledge. Also, it didn’t change much of anything.
I should put a small disclaimer here that I do believe in attending church. God works in and through people connected by a physical space worshiping in community. There is a lot to be said about a church having a building. Even with that being true, we can probably all agree people make up the body of Christ.
So what does the church look like when there is no building? What does the church look like when they can’t meet in the building?
We’ve seen some really good ideas so far. Many churches have done some great things with their online services and social media platforms. However, isn’t that just the new “building?” Live streaming isn’t exactly the same as a building, but it’s meant to fill the same void. It’s a place to engage in worship music and listen to preaching. Many churches are also doing some great things in their live chats so attendees can even engage and have conversations.
In many ways, we still haven’t changed much of anything.
So what does the church look like when we don’t have (or can’t use) a building? There are many examples out there. We can see the church move underground in places where public Christian gatherings are illegal or dangerous. Francis Chan was a champion of We Are Church, a house church model. Tampa Underground Network has grown with a “micro church” concept. The body of Christ exists in many denominations, in many countries, and in many forms.
My goal here is not to examine each of those different forms of church. Instead, I want to unpack some scripture to help guide our understanding and our choices moving forward.
The Scripture I want to focus on here is Jeremiah 29:4-7. Many Christians remember verse 11 that comes after this section. We often forget the context of that verse. Jeremiah 29 comes to us from a letter sent to the leaders of Israel in exile. These words come to people who have lost everything and watched many of their own people killed. They are now living in the kingdom of the very ones who destroyed their lives. Israel is being oppressed and forced to serve a foreign kingdom once again. They are being forced to worship the gods of a different land. More importantly, the temple has been completely destroyed.
I don’t want to compare our current conditions to the exile. Make no mistake, the exile was far worse than anything the church in America has ever experienced.
What I want to compare is the loss of the temple. The Israelites lost the way they knew to worship. This wasn’t just a change in preference. They could no longer worship in the way they believed the Scriptures instructed. And they didn’t lose it for a few months. They knew this was lost for at least a generation. Everything had been turned upside down. It would be easy to feel lost or worse.
In that climate, Jeremiah wrote these words,
The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.
The first thing we notice is that God is not abandoning His people. It’s easy to feel abandoned when life is crazy. God sent this message through the prophet Jeremiah specifically for these Israelites. He has also preserved these words for us to read today. No matter what is going on politically or otherwise, God has not abandoned you.
Christmas is the reminder that Jesus came as Immanuel, God with us. God is still with us. Advent is the season where we wait patiently and actively for that realization to come to reality in our lives and our world. Make no mistake, God is with us.
God’s first piece of advice seems to be pretty simple. He tells them to live life. They surely wanted to go back home. They were grieving all they had lost. Many of them were probably plotting ways to resist or run. God tells them to move forward in the new land. Do what you can in the place you now live. They weren’t home and nothing was ever going to be the same again. God doesn’t tell them to get over it, but He does instruct them to not dwell on it. He points out ways they can still be productive and thrive in their new conditions.
We must look at the same things. What are the areas in our lives where we can thrive? Where can we plant new things? We are going to have to find new traditions or new rhythms.
Finally, God tells them to work towards the benefit of their new city. He also instructs them to pray for the new city. This was really hard for them. The new city was full of the enemy. The new city was full of the people who had ruined their lives and killed their family members and friends. But God says Israel’s prosperity and success will be directly linked to that of their new city.
We aren’t living in the midst of our enemies. It may feel like it, but we aren’t. First of all, we’re all Americans and we haven’t been conquered by a foreign occupying government. Second, Paul reminds us our enemy is not made of flesh and blood. No human is our enemy. Our enemy may be the forces that humans are following and serving, but the other humans aren’t our enemies.
We are called to work for the benefit of others even in the darkest times. This is what God called the Israelites to do in Babylon when they could no longer worship in the temple or even in the same way. He called them to serve others. Jesus called us to do the same thing. He told us to love our neighbor and our enemy. He taught us to take on the heart of a servant.
When people say the church isn’t a building, this is what they should be talking about. The main function of the church exists outside of the primary worship center. The church exists in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our towns. The church exists in our network of friends and family. The church exists in the grocery stores we rush through and gas stations we pass by.
The church cannot be quarantined because the church is everywhere. Our ability to be the church has nothing to do with a building being open or closed. A worship service can happen in a big building, online, or with our family in our living room. Neither of those is any more or less the church.Our ability to be the church has nothing to do with a building being open or closed. Click To Tweet
This year my wife bought an Advent wreath for our home. That’s honestly the first time I’ve ever seen one used outside of the church. As I was lighting the candles for it I was struck by the realization that the church is in our living room. It’s our family and it will extend to all the relationships we have and all the connections we make through the rest of the week.
As Christians, we shouldn’t need to fight the temporary closing of a building. The intentions are good. You may or may not agree with the general consensus, but the intent is to save lives. Instead of spending our energy on fighting over the physical building, we should be spending that energy on being the type of church that can’t be shut down. We should be the type of church that doesn’t need a building to survive. We should follow God’s advice to the Israelites in exile and the advice Jesus gives His followers. We should find ways to bring Jesus to where people are. There are people hurting, suffering, lost, and lonely. We can’t afford to waste time-fighting over a physical space when those people need to experience the love of Christ.