Frequently the first question visitors ask when they visit my church is, “Where is the church?” They look at the sparse interior with its seemingly random hodgepodge of brick and non-matching columns and wonder what the hell happened the beautiful, traditional church promised by the 1890’s facade. They were expecting pews and soaring vaults. “A fire, that’s what happened,” I inevitably tell every visitor. I try not to say that with an apologetic tone, but people still often respond with something like, “That’s too bad” or some other expression of disappointment and sympathy. Our Church just doesn’t look like a church is supposed to look.
Early in my time there I would sometimes answer this question, “where is the church?” with something like, “You are looking at them!” and gesture to the people gathered. But I found that this was impossible to say without snark or implied condescension. Maybe a better person could say in properly, but with me it always felt false. I knew that the question was not theological, but cultural. We’ve invited people to engage spirituality as something mediated by the full gamut of human creativity including music, literature, and, yes, architecture. If people come into our churches expecting a certain moment of aesthetic bliss, it’s because we Christians have conditioned them to expect that as part of the package.
For all our protestations about how “The people are really the church, not the building,” we still spend an extraordinary amount of our collective budgets on the care and feeding of our buildings. We are proud of the legacy built by our ancestors and the stories they tell about faithfulness, ingenuity, and (yes) Jesus.
Last Sunday I preached that if Jesus were alive at my church “He would probably burn it down again, because apparently we didn’t get the lesson the first time.” What I meant was that to have a building or not have a building is unimportant in God’s economy: what matters is whether our hearts are on fire with Jesus-love. And if they aren’t on fire, then maybe we need to set some things ablaze until we get there.
Don’t get me wrong, I love buildings, and we’ve got big plans to change my church so that the internal beauty matches the beauty of the people who gather there. But that inclination reveals a subtle tendency to look for Jesus in the wrong things, and resisting it is a way to get back to the Jesus-mind.
Where is the church? “You are looking right at it.” This time I can say it without snark, without condescension.
Sure, the mansion has many rooms. And some of those rooms were last renovated in 1976 with a limited budget based on an insurance settlement and need refurbishment. So what? I was built (born) in the 1976 and probably need some refurbishment, too. Maybe it’s not about looking past the facade to the true beauty underneath or behind, but seeing Jesus in the fleshy bits: a weird chancel there, a double-chin there, a dirty wall here. Our God incarnates in human form not to wear a mask, but to dwell with us. That is, in the incarnation God has taken the broken and worn out bits of humanity and taken them into Himself. Anyone who has seen Jesus–broken, dirty, regular old Jesus–has seen the Father. What audacity of imagination! What ontological ambition we have!
If Jesus-love takes us out of our buildings and keeps us other-focused (“Missional”). Jesus-mind gives us the X-ray vision that Philip lacked. “Show us the church,” we are constantly being asked. So let’s do that, but not in the ways people expect. Show them the real church. Open their eyes to see the Lord of all creation in a handful of brick dust and a couple of people gathered together. It’s not about seeing past a broken building to the platonic and secret idealized church community–it’s about seeing a broken building AS the church. Embrace the ugly bits, because that is how you embrace Jesus.