Evangelical Christians today will often downplay the importance of church buildings. We say, “The Church is the people. God does not live in bricks and mortar. Even the Old Testament (with its emphasis on the Temple) affirms that! God’s people are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians affirms that the individual and the gathered believers are the temple of the Spirit. Jesus was the dwelling place of God and all this understanding supersedes the notion of holy things and holy places. ‘Church’ buildings are a means to an end and not things to be venerated or attract unnecessary expense.”
Now there is some truth in all of that. There are too many times when buildings have been valued above people, before mission and in preference to Jesus’ affirmation that people would worship God, neither on the mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth (John 4). But there is another side to all of this.
Haggai, speaking to the 50,000 or so who had returned from Exile and were rebuilding Jerusalem, tells them that it’s high time they got around to rebuilding God’s house, the Temple. The problem was one of attitude. They were so busy fixing up their own houses that they had no time to dedicate to the place of prayer and sacrifice in deference to the One who had yet again delivered and re-established them in the Promised Land. Their priorities were inward-focussed rather than God-focussed. Haggai warned them that such an attitude was resulting in spiritual and material poverty of life. Put God first and they would experience his presence and the enrichment of their lives.
I remember some years ago visiting an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, who kept quite a regimented day, of almost the monastic kind. On one occasion he was about to preside at a Holy Communion service and realised with horror that his shoes were not quite clean. Although they looked all right to me, he had to go off and clean and polish them before leading in worship. I admit that I was somewhat bemused at the time by what I felt was an example of over-zealous legalism. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that cleaning his shoes and observing set times in his day were his way of honouring God and showing his respect for his Creator and Lord. “After all,” I thought, “I would make sure my shoes were clean if I was meeting say, the Queen. Why not then dress appropriately to lead people in worship before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?” Should we not also want to treat with respect the places and the objects that we have set aside and dedicated to the worship of Almighty God?
Now I know that there has to be some balance in all of this. We don’t want to forget that God is both our friend and Father and that Jesus is our brother as well as our Lord. But we do need to be careful, I think, not to become so familiar and off-hand with God that our worship spaces and holy tables become like the junk room in our house, with just another piece of battered old furniture pulled out when we need extra benchtop space – the same benchtop space we use to remember the enormous love of God expressed in the agonising death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in our place, for our sins.
So it comes back to our attitude and motivation. Does our lifestyle, our body language, our maintenance of ourselves and our buildings, how we present ourselves and the way we offer corporate worship — do these things reflect that we, in Paul’s words, have presented our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God? (Romans 12:1-2).
These are things to think about, not that we should fall into legalism, but that we should respect God and respect those who express their respect differently from us.