Keep it Clean, Your Church's Clutter Could Be Killing Growth
When I was a child I can remember my parents and the adults of the church referring to the church building as “God’s house.” There is some degree with which that messes with your mind as a child thinking that God actually lived there, but there were other things that came along with the verbage that were perfectly clear. You didn’t run in God’s house for fear of being shot through with a holy laser beam from the heavens. You dressed up when you were in God’s house. There is no way you would ever think of bringing food or drink into God’s house. You respected and reverenced the church building because it was “God’s house.”
Over the years we have forsaken this mentality, and to some degree we did so for good cause.
- It was a reaction to the idolatry of buildings the American church seemed to fall into as it became increasingly driven by building structures for God and less about having a relationship with God.
- It helped us reframe a healthy theology of what the church is, helping us think less of the church as a place and more of the church as a people, which is a healthy New Testament theology.
- It helped us gain a better sense of who God is and how the Christian life is to be lived. Calling the church building “God’s house” localized holiness, as if we were to behave in that place in a way we were not to behave anywhere else. I need to be a good Christian, but I needed to be especially good at church. This was a detriment to praxis of the church so we made a turn so that we no longer localized holiness to one place i.e. “God’s house”, but we instead communicated that we are before the Lord always and everywhere. Not only is God present everywhere, but the Holy Spirit is in us. We are God’s Temple (1 Cor. 3:16). Live like it!
Although this was a much needed correction, where we are now exposes our tendency as people to grossly overcorrect on most things and find ourselves out of balance. Because we wanted to make such a strong statement in recovering what the church is, I think we have lost a sense of how we should treat the property the church does manage , rent, own, or use, namely its buildings.
Currently the trend is to be too lax in our treatment of space and because of it, we are once again conveying a message that we don’t want to convey. We are coming across as if we don’t care about the way we treat our spaces and that there is very little sense that when we are here that we are before the presence of God at all. In most contexts it is difficult to distinguish a church building from Starbucks or a concert hall. We leave the church like we leave a stadium, just leave your trash behind - somebody else will pick it up. In my observations, for lack of better terms, whereas we may have been too long on our theology of God and spaces in times past, maybe now we are falling short.
In Haggai chapter 1, God makes some powerful statements about His view of sacred space. I know some may argue that it was in regards to the Temple and we should not think of modern church buildings as mini-Temples, but I do see some principles we can learn from that do say something about God and the spaces we use.
- God expects more from us as His people. Haggai chided his audience for being cheap with God’s house at the expense of being preoccupied with their own (1:4). God reveals that He is not only concerned with their homes, but also with the spaces they build as His people in the community. Especially the spaces that are associated with His name.
- Their lack of attention led to a lack of fruitfulness (1:6). For the modern church a principle we can glean here is that when we do not give attention to our buildings, whatever we endeavor to do in missions and ministry will be negatively impacted.
- God calls for us to consider our ways (1:7). This means not only should we examine the condition of things, but we should be asking a more probing question, what do we do that results in things being as they are?
- God desired to take pleasure in and to be glorified by what they built (1:8). We need a real sense that the building is NOT God. We do not want to return to building-olatry, but we do not need to lose sight that we do communicate God’s message and we do ministry in our buildings in His name. If we are to attach God’s name to a facility, whether rented or owned, however it is used, we should not discount that He is mindful of how we treat the place.
- Being mindful of facilities is not a matter of procedure, but of spiritual stirring (1:12ff). The Bible says that the people obeyed the voice of the Lord and the end result is that people were spiritually stirred. We need the Spirit to stir us about the way we keep our facilities.
So allow me to give some broader thoughts to the people of God that may lend the church to being stirred about its spaces and places:
- The church building says a lot about who you are and what you believe. At its core the gospel is about redeeming lives, cleaning up, caring for one another. Does your building reflect this? Are things around the people allowed to be cluttered, decay, and messy while you are trying to teach the people that the gospel cleanses and makes all things new?
G Campbell Morgan said, “Whereas the house of God today is no longer material but spiritual, the material is still a very real symbol of the spiritual. When the Church of God in any place in any locality is careless about the material place of assembly, the place of its worship and its work, it is a sign and evidence that its life is at a low ebb.”
- Your buildings should serve as reminders that lead people to God. Many church buildings have furnishings that are different than any other space in the community such as altars and communion tables. I know many congregations no longer have these furnishings, but however you furnish your space, is there anything there that would serve to bring people’s hearts and minds to the business at hand? Even the facility should serve to lead us to know the Lord.
- The Lordship of Jesus Christ should be reflected in the space. If Jesus is the Lord of the church, the church congregation should be doing things that reflect His leadership. How has obedience to the Word of God impacted the way you treat your facilities?
- Places matter to people. We live in a physical world and environment affects the way we think. We also attach memories to places. There are several places I like to drive past and visit because they serve as reminders of important moments in my life. People will go and visit the ruins of structures of things that happened thousands of years ago trying to get some sense of what it must have been like to be there. The way we treat facilities is as much a matter of love for the brethren as it is anything else. Do the conditions of the restrooms, the seating, the entrances, etc reflect humble love for one another? Does one group get the “nicer” rooms because they give more while others are forced to learn Christ in a pit?
- Your buildings tell your story. Without anyone saying a word, if it looks deteriorated on outside or trashy inside, the appearance of the place is not saying what you want said. Long before the sermon or the songs people have made decisions about the congregation simply by judging the presentation of their space.
- True, the church is a spiritual people, but we inhabit and use a physical space. We can’t disconnect the spiritual from the material. Our material selves often convey what is going on in our soul. If the spaces you touch look messy it is often indicative that things in your spiritual life are unkept and undisciplined. Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Matt. 12:34). The same could be said for our treatment of spaces. Don’t ever think that buildings are neutral when it comes to what we are trying to accomplish spiritually. A disconnect between spiritual and material is Gnosticism. Surely we are not heretics. We can lose our testimony quickly based on space.
- We should use our facilities to teach our children reverence and respect.
- Respect - part of evaluation in which you put value or honor to something being greater than yourself. We teach stewardship and giving with these buildings.
- Reverence - Honor with dedication.
Surely we are not satisfied with disrespect and irreverence as the motivation for our stewardship. Stuff comes with a cost. Every resource of the church should be leveraged for the gospel and not wasted. It is difficult to teach this to our children if they are allowed to abuse resources or if they see resources wasted in and around the church facility.
There are a lot of opinions on the church’s use of space. I am not trying to enter that debate. All I am saying is whether the church owns or rents, meets in a home or a coffee shop, wears tuxes and plays organs or wears ripped jeans and shreds guitars - however we do it, we use space. We should not allow our use of space to undercut the message of the gospel. Christ makes all things new, including the environment and ultimately ALL space. Let’s work as a body to keep it clean in Jesus’ name.
Here is a list of insightful articles on the subject from which I gleaned: