There’s no denying that third spaces are fantastic places and opportunities to share God’s love. I’ve had the joy of praying for (and with) an atheist at my kitchen table, giving my testimony to a fellow dog walker (he asked!), and sitting with one of God’s prodigal daughters as she made her way back to him in a wine bar over Sauvignon Blanc, peanuts and tears.
You’ll have your own stories like these. What made the difference in these tales is not the place you were sitting or walking in – however nice it was; it was you and me – people empowered with the Holy Spirit and open to his leading, wherever you found yourself.
Sure, under the old covenant the temple was the meeting place between God and people. But since Jesus death on the cross and his resurrection three days later, Jesus has become the temple, he has become that meeting place and believers can meet God in Jesus by faith, anywhere and anytime.
So what’s the point of church buildings? Can they have anything meaningful to add in our quest to make disciples? And what happens when you take God’s difference makers, his people led by the Spirit, out of the equation?
Since becoming a Christian and being weaned off the idea that you have to be in church to be with God (I’ve watched a lot of period dramas!), I’ve had little affection for the church building itself. What happens in the church building in terms of sharing life, hearing about God, serving there, giving God adoration, thanksgiving and petitioning him is of huge spiritual significance to me, but not the place itself.
My attitude might well have been fuelled by the fact that the church building in which I have until recently worked, and still serve and worship, is a very modern building. Built in 2006 it has a glass front, an auditorium style worship space and a high technological spec. The building appears at first glance to have little to say about the glory of God when compared with a gothic style cathedral with beautiful stained-glass windows, depicting the story of God and a whole host of holy embellishments outside and within.
It was a surprise to me then, when in my role as church administrator I was occasionally asked by members of the public if they could ‘just go and sit in the church a while’ – on a Thursday! What they meant by ‘church’ was the sanctuary, the worship space. Some literally just sat quietly, others prayed, some would stand in front of the cross, and for others it was an opening line that was looking for a listening ear. What they appeared to crave was some kind of spiritual encounter.
I thought they were weird. Why come to the church for such an encounter when you can meet with Jesus anywhere and anytime? Hadn’t anyone told them? Had they also been the victims of period drama theology?
But then I read a book! In ‘Re-pitching the tent’ Richard Giles says that the building and its layout, in clear contradiction to my attitude up to that moment, is highly significant because ‘the house of the church tells a story’.
Being a story enthusiast, this really got me thinking, and so I wondered; what is the story that our (super modern) church building tells? Here’s the story that unfolded when I really looked:
The demolition of the old building and the rebuilding of a church home with a glass front and user-friendly spaces brings faith in Jesus into the 21st Century. It says ‘welcome’ to the community and it tells the story of a group of people so committed to worshipping God and welcoming them, that the members sacrificially gave to make this undertaking happen. And so for those who know this chapter, it speaks of faith in God, investment into the future and it is a message to those who live in the town: ‘we believe’.
The building itself is large and so has a physical presence in the middle of the town centre. It has two big crosses that light up at night and can be seen from some distance. The windows show displays about the Bible and about events that are soon to take place; many things from children’s events to those for senior citizens.
I can see then why people searching for God’s presence might come to the building and request those quiet moments. We’ve advertised from the outside, that this is a place where the God of the cross might be known, that everyone is welcome and that there is space for all.
But can the worship space really contribute to a person’s experience of God when they visit alone midweek, when the congregation (not to mention the preacher and the worship band!) is absent?
Giles seems to believe so. He writes that the building and its layout answers questions about what kind of a group of people go there, and about God.
In our case it demonstrates that the Church is a congregation where people are in relationship with one another. The worship space is wide and open; there are no private areas there, no pews and no pillars to hide behind. The space is large indicating that many people can meet there.
The big screen on the wall and the Bibles in the seats show that this is a group of people who are called to participate; they have to do something when they meet there.
The communion table, the baptistery, the instruments and the large speakers hanging down from the ceilings are clues that a celebratory community meets there!
The symbols in the worship space and how they are placed are also revealing. A tall wooden cross stands at the front of the church, highlighting its importance. The number of Bibles shows the significance of this book and that what goes on in that space has a root. The lectern at the front lets the observer know that whatever happens in that space, someone takes the lead.
The flowers as well as how clean and tidy the space is show that people have been there recently, and they show that someone cares for this space and wants to make it nice and welcoming.
In short; the building, it’s layout and the symbols within it introduce people to a God who is welcoming, interested in relationships, who gives people reasons to celebrate, and who is consistent and rooted. The cross reminds the visitor either of the sacrifice God made, or for those who don’t know this yet, it must surely stir them to wonder about it.
It can also tell a powerful story to the observant visitor about the people who meet there, and introduces them to the mystery of God. And in a space where a person can quietly reflect on this mystery, with a few good clues and the power of the Holy Spirit, their short visit to a modern church building, even on a Thursday, and in the absence of the congregation, could have tremendous spiritual significance.