“THE CHURCH IS NOT THE BUILDING.” A catchy Covid-19 banner hung in front of the campus of one of our city’s larger church facilities. Another Charlotte congregation, with a towering mega facility, once stenciled this reminder over every exterior door handle— “IT’S WHAT IS INSIDE THAT COUNTS.”
I would not open this piece with those words if I were trying to elicit snickers of condemnation. I am not. I salute both congregations for their insights. Both slogans highlight the same truth— do not confuse the “church” with the building where congregations meet. If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 shelter in place orders preventing large crowds from gathering, it is that Jesus is present among His people and His Spirit indwells His people. Even when we cannot meet as one large group on Sunday morning, God is among His people.
Perhaps this unexpected reminder is timely and just what we need as the nation, and the world, experience tectonic changes that come maybe every 500 years. Globalization has changed the world. Despite the current and temporary concerns about Asian manufacturing supply chains, the world is more interconnected economically, politically, culturally, and religiously than at any other time since Babel. And you know how that ended!
These changes bring new ways of thinking and new patterns of relating to one another. And just like at Babel, that is not always a good thing. The church must clearly hear the message that the building where we meet, the programs that we run, and the institutions that we have established, though they may be blessings to serve the church’s mission, they are not the CHURCH.
WHY SOUND THE BUILDING ALARM NOW?
No one yet knows in the post-COVID environment if everyone will go back to church buildings on Sundays. Will parents put their children anytime soon in nursery or Sunday school? Or, after having had months of convenient Zoom Sundays, will people be quick to give up such robe and slipper convenience, shuttle the complaining kids in the family van, and devote half a day to Sunday church activities?
“Yes, they should!” we cry. But will our self-indulgent Christian culture that already surfs the web for the best sermon-of-the-week actually give up the convenience afforded by our technology? No one yet knows, just as no one yet knows how many congregations will default on their mortgages. How many will continue to furlough staff? How many will cut back on giving and missions?
I am not saying such WILL happen. What I am saying is that the world has changed, COVID-19 is an accelerant to that change, and it MIGHT permanently change how we gather as the church— if not in 2020, soon.
Since the fourth century, the church has wrestled with its identity tied to a building, campus, or cathedral. Many rightly highlight that the church is the people and not the building, but we have not been as clear that the church, as the Lord’s people, exists and functions throughout the week in all the locations where believers gather. That has been the COVID-19 reminder. We may be in for a seismic shock not felt since the Reformation.
INDICATION OF THE CHANGE
Our language indicates that we still have not fully understood the church is not its building, campus, heritage, or institution. We know the Bible teaches there is but ONE church, but we constantly talk about the many churches in our city.
We sloppily equate “church” with its many congregations. We say there are about a thousand churches in Charlotte. That is untrue. There is ONE church in Charlotte, but about a thousand congregations. Why do we casually make such verbal blunders even though we know there is only one church?
Authored by Dr. David Ingrassia, Pastor at Charlotte Awake