Years ago, our church family split apart, partly over disagreements and difficulties related to a new building in which we planned to meet. I became convinced that having a permanent physical space wasn’t really important for a church. The church was made of people, not bricks and mortar, after all. We can worship God anywhere, so who needs an actual building anyway?
I remained convinced of this perspective when my family joined a church that met in a high school. Worship happened in the auditorium, children’s ministry took place in the classrooms, and a team of volunteers moved bins of equipment and supplies in and out of the school every week. It became our normal, and what I believed continued to make the most sense.
You might think I’m getting ready to tell you that way of doing church is actually wrong, but I’m not. It still works; it still makes sense for our community. The Church is still, certainly, made up of people. And when we had to stop meeting in person last spring for safety concerns, my determination not to become dependent on a physical space served me well. Church online, broadcast to my television screen each Sunday morning? Awesome. Small groups and youth groups meeting via Zoom call? Fantastic. What a blessing technology has been to allow us to continue to gather even though we’ve been physically separated!
I say that sincerely. But as some parts of the world begin to open up for more in-person interactions, I’ve also realized that physical spaces do, in fact, matter a whole lot.
For the first couple of months my church began meeting in person again, we used another church’s building on Sunday afternoons. Finally, though, when the school year ended and our part of the world grew safer, we were allowed back into the high school that had been our church home for the last decade. I didn’t expect to feel any different that first morning back, though I’d smiled and nodded when our pastors and other church members expressed their deep gladness to finally be “going home.” After all, it would be the same group of people we’d been seeing in person for several weeks now, just in a different building. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but I was happy for them.
Oh, what arrogance! How blind I was to the effect that Sunday morning return would have on my heart!
Anyone who knows me even a little bit will not be surprised to learn that I cried nonstop the morning our church returned to our high school building home. Tears streamed down my face so quickly I eventually gave up trying to hide them and just stood in the auditorium, weeping openly.
What happened? The church is not a building! Right? Right? Right . . . but . . . I can no longer deny that place matters. Of course it does! Why else would God’s gift to His chosen people be a Promised Land? Why was it such an honor for Solomon to build God’s temple? Why did Jesus feel and express so much anger when people were misusing His Father’s house?
Because place matters.
I’m writing this from my favorite coffee shop that I didn’t realize how desperately I missed until I was back here at my favorite corner table. And the next time I get to settle onto a friend’s couch or back porch, I’ll be hard pressed not to burst into tears again at the sacred nature of sharing space.
I realize that some of you reading this still might not be able to physically gather with others. And I recognize that, for some of you, a church building or meeting space isn’t where you feel most at home, connected to God, or even comfortable.
But for all of us, no matter where we find ourselves today or tomorrow, place matters. And because He loves us so much, I believe any place God meets us becomes holy ground. The wooden altar facing stained glass windows in the sanctuary of our childhood church. The dark auditorium borrowed from a high school. The corner chair in our living rooms where we sit with our Bibles. The patio table or park bench or back porch where we pray with a friend. The cracked leather seat on the bus where we read a devotion on our phones. Anywhere we meet God, anywhere two or more gather in His name, can become a sacred place.
And if you’re missing a sacred, physical space today, you’re not alone. So many of us have been missing our places, but God is with us no matter where we are.
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.
Joshua 1:9 (ESV)