By Laura Stephens-Reed
The church is not a building,
the church is not a steeple,
the church is not a resting place,
the church is a people.
–“We Are the Church,” words and music by Donald Marsh and Richard Avery, ©1972, Hope Publishing Company
You might be familiar with this hymn, which is sometimes sung on Pentecost Sunday but is relevant all year long. The gist, as the selection suggests, is that the church is the container for many experiences and the embodiment of diverse people, but it is not primarily the place where it happens to gather.
Perhaps that’s a bit of an oversimplification, because location has meaning.
Memories shape who we are, and churches are the context for a lot of them. I recall the terror I felt at walking into youth Sunday School for the first time, the temperature of the water when I was baptized, the comfort of being with my faith community the morning after my grandmother died, the seeming self-propulsion of my legs down the aisle to share my call to ministry at the end of a worship service. You no doubt have your own visceral memories, be they weddings or funerals or other significant events.
But a church’s physical plant isn’t an air-tight jar through which memories and learnings and the people associated with them cannot escape. Honestly, all of my sense associations could have happened in another space, because the church is not its building or its steeple. It is its community and its values, continually shaping and sending forth.
Many congregations have wrestled with this tension—context is important, but it isn’t the main thing—over the past decade or two. It manifests in painful, though potentially deeply faithful discussions around how our church is associated with all of these formative experiences, and it is too big for who we are now, or it is too expensive to maintain, or it serves people who drive in from a distance instead of the surrounding neighborhood.
The circumstances of the past few months have perhaps given us new distance to have these conversations about what it means to be the church, not just go to a church building once or twice a week. Almost all congregations took some break from in-person gathering due to the pandemic, and many are still leaning on technology for worship, Bible studies, and meetings.
How are we being church to one another and showing the love of Christ without setting a toe on church property? Where do we—not just staff, but laity—need to get more creative? What does our ability to do so mean for the best use of our church’s tangible assets?
These questions about physical plant aren’t going away. May this ongoing time of challenge give us the ability to delineate more clearly between the place that we meet (when safe), as meaningful as it is, and the community Christ calls us to be wherever we are.
Laura Stephens-Reed is Peer Learning Group Regional Director for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. She also serves as a clergy coach and congregational consultant.