Here’s the church,
Here’s the steeple,
Open the doors,
And here’s all the people.
You probably remember that little nursery rhyme from when you were a kid, complete with folded hands, intertwined fingers, and finally after the doors are opened, the revealed punchline of all those finger-people in the middle. It was cute, it was catchy, it was memorable, it promoted digital dexterity in kids, and it encouraged children to be in their place, “in the church.”
The only problem was, it was bad theology.
The church is not a place, it’s a people. When we say “here’s the church” and then make a little building with our hands, we are warping the concept and definition of church as Scripture defines it into an edifice made by hands–in this case, literally. Of course, there’s also the alternative ending, with fingers folded outward instead of inward, revealing at the end an empty church, and the question, “And where’s all the people?”
Either way, it twists our understanding of what “church” is, starting at an early age. The Bible is clear that the church is made up of people, not of bricks and mortar–or even walls and steeples made of fingers. It ruins the poem, I understand, but it is helpful for us to know what we’re dealing with when we talk about the “church” of Jesus Christ. And though for some it may just seem like semantics, it is more than that. How we see church will determine how we interact as a part of it.
For the record, it was the 4th century A.D. before there was anything resembling a “church building.” People gathered “house to house,” as the book of Acts describes it (on multiple occasions), and wherever else they could find a place to meet. But the early church would have found it absurd to use the word “church” to describe a building.
I think a good analogy would be the word “family.” We know what that is, and it is never confused with the house or home where the family lives. We may say we are going home to family for the holidays, and mean a certain house where the family lives, but we would never point to a house and say, “That’s my family.” That would be ridiculous.
But it is no more ridiculous than referring to the “ekklesia”–the ones who are called out–as a building instead of the family of God.
You see this regularly, when a tornado or fire destroys a church building, and they interview the pastor on the local news hear where their beloved building once stood. He inevitably says, pointing to the pile or rubble or smoldering ruins, “this is not the church, this is just a building.” And he would be right. But it shouldn’t take a tragedy for us to get that right.
One of the applications from this past Sunday’s message was that Jesus extended the definition of family beyond blood relatives to those who were united through a common relationship with Christ. And that is still true. That is what church is. We are a family of faith, a community of interdependent believers knit together through our union with Jesus.
I realize that wiggling our fingers and saying, “Here’s the church,” and then folding our hands together to say, “and here’s the building they gather in,” makes for an awkward poem, but it’s much closer to the truth than what many of us learned as kids.
Whether The Church of Shelby Crossings gathers in rented warehouses, or whether we one day meet to worship together in a beautiful building with stained glass and a pointed top, it is vital to our identity and our mission to always remember that “this is not the church, this is just a building.” Here‘s the church: we are family.
I’m sure glad to be a part of this faith family with each of you. I’m praying for you, and I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.