Is a church building required in order to “go to church?” Throughout most of its 2000 year history, Christianity has been summoning generations of faithful followers to gather in physical structures specifically set aside for worship. Church buildings have ranged from the magnificence of medieval cathedrals to the simplicity of unadorned, white-painted meeting places, from nineteenth century, sanctified log cabins to today’s easily accessible, hi tech functionality of contemporary houses of worship.
It wasn’t always so! As discussed in my last column, (“Going, Going, Gone?” March 17) the earliest Christians, at that time still only a small sect, met regularly in one another’s homes. What finally turned that practice around occurred in AD 313. The Roman emperor, Constantine, declared Christianity to be his official “state religion.” Once freed from its fear of persecution, the church grew rapidly across Europe, developing an increasingly complex hierarchy, formal chains of command, clearly-defined doctrinal statements and elaborate edifices designed to glorify God.
Today, the so-called mainstream church faces at least three challenges: its aging congregations, the high cost of maintaining its older buildings and society’s increasing secularism which results in fewer attendees. As previously noted, The National Trust for Canada predicted the closing of about 9,000 faith buildings over this next decade. I hastened to add in that column that some churches in our region of Ontario are actually growing, not declining, while others are at least maintaining their numbers.
What options do concerned churches have? Apart from deconsecrating and selling their properties, demolishing them, or opening them up to the community’s use, there are other imaginative alternatives to explore and implement:
AMALGAMATION: Two or three smaller churches within a denomination and with close geographical proximity can merge to create one more vibrant new structure. This has happened in Owen Sound.
REGIONAL SITES: The Meeting House in Oakville has 20 satellite sites across Ontario. While primary teaching and oversight emanates from the “mother church,” its message is sent to regional locales via podcast and other forms of social media. Local leaders and congregations provide personal caring. prayer and relational ministry, while still taking advantage of the specialized resources available from Oakville.
SHARED MINISTRY: At least two denominations across Grey and Bruce Counties, the Presbyterian Church and the United Church, are experimenting with sharing clergy among several local congregations. By so doing, it is hoped that, by reducing their expenses, and also developing lay leadership, local churches can remain viable.
HOUSE CHURCHES: Christians could gather in homes for weekly worship. Some do so only as a beginning step while gathering requisite financing, sufficient members and careful planning for an eventual church building. In other nations where the church faces persecution, like China or Iran, it can be safer to gather quietly in houses, not public buildings.
In most cases, however, the house church is based on a recognition that “church” is not the building, but its people. Groups have decided that too much time, energy and dollars are spent on maintaining a physical structure; that a more vital goal is to follow the template outlined in the Bible’s Book of Acts:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread (from house to house) and to prayer. (New International Version.)
The first “Christians” were actually Jews who continued to worship at the Temple but as the break from Judaism grew, so the house churches grew as gatherings of worshipers. It took the missionary efforts of Paul to subsequently plant churches with actual buildings across the Middle East and part of Europe.
I readily acknowledge that the aesthetics of a beautifully designed building is conducive to worship. I also acknowledge that a sovereign God could choose to bring “revival” to declining churches who earnestly pray for him to restore their numbers and reawaken their vitality. And certainly, In much of Africa and Latin America, evangelical Christianity is seeing major expansion, not atrophy.
Yet the pragmatist in me recognizes that this new reality of growing secularism and aging congregations in Canada may require that novel and alternative ways of worship must at least be considered. As Jesus reassured his followers, including us: “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt. 18:20 NIV) But he never specified where they must come together.