The issue of church buildings has become a difficult one in recent years, particularly for those of us in small country churches and chapels where incomes are usually small, upkeep remains important and safety legislation imposes an ever-increasing list of duties and restrictions. The closure of such buildings has been a characterising feature of the rural church, giving the impression of a people without hope and a God looking the other way.
Yet the community of God’s people always seems to be drawn towards some kind of ‘sacred space’. The book of Acts tells us that the early church “continued to meet together in the temple courts” (Acts 2: 46a), presumably for prayer and worship (but also that “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” – Acts 2: 46b). They were still drawn to a place that had been set apart for the purpose. Other early churches met in homes, for example see Romans 16: 5, although there is evidence that there were also public gatherings of larger groups of Christians throughout the city of Rome.
Whilst there are also many practical advantages to owning a building, it is the sense of sacred space that helps to draw a community together and give it a unique identity. You will have often noticed how people looking round a cathedral or other holy site will speak in whispers, even though there is no service going on. I would like to think that this is a distant echo of those verses in Acts 5, “No one else dared join them [the Church], even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (verses 13 & 14). At best there is a deep-seated awe of God within each of us that manifests in such ‘set aside’ places; at worst a fear of religion and control that drives us away.
Our challenge, as living communities in this day and age where the healthy fear of God has all but disappeared, is to re-establish sacred spaces that evoke a genuinely reverent response through a sense of God’s presence and the loving care of those who use it. This may not always be possible in an old church building, although, with some updating and careful thought and prayer, much can be achieved. A garden might go some way towards this as well, or may compliment an existing building.
Restricting access to some areas, to be used for prayer and meditation only, might also help to develop a sense of the awe of God, and give further weight to the identity of the community. Not only can members benefit from a quiet area where they can be guaranteed space and solitude, but onlookers must choose whether to respect the restriction or not – most will if they know there is a purpose to it, and some will wonder how they can qualify to use the space themselves; how they can be ‘added’.
There are pitfalls to this approach. Many folk think that churches are sacred just because they are churches, and forget that it is God who makes them ‘sacred’. The Israelites lost their sense of perspective in the same way; they began to venerate objects connected to God rather than God Himself (Matthew 23: 16-22), and even stoned Stephen when he dared to suggest that God could not be contained within their temple (Acts 7: 48-50). God allowed the ‘unthinkable’ to take place not long afterwards, and the temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70!
The ancient Celtic church used to talk of ‘thin places’ under an ‘open heaven’. If such places exist, they do so because of the hearts and minds of those who use them to seek after God, and not because there is anything special about the place itself. Jacob is an example of this; God met with him at Bethel (Genesis 28), and thereafter the place became particularly significant to him. What was special about it? Nothing! He even had to use a stone for his pillow (v11) because there was no provision otherwise! As long as we remember this, our buildings, gardens, halls and sheds can be tools in our hands for strengthening our communities and pointing the way to Jesus.