Who controls the present? Do people from the past (long dead and gone)? the present? or the future?
When you ask this question regarding the church, the answer might surprise you. The simple answer is God, or course. When we look at it from a practical standpoint, we should see fingerprints of people from across time – similar to seeing God’s imprint across time on creation.
The past offers traditions and accumulated wisdom. The present offers action. The future offers vision.
But how often do we see something else – the tyranny of one of these times over the other. The tyranny of the past might be the most common. We allow the past to dictate all aspects of the church. We hear this in statements like “oh we can’t touch that – Mrs. Smith’s great-grandfather built that.” Yes, but Mrs. Smith’s great-grandfather has been long dead. And oh, by the way, so is Mrs. Smith.
Tyranny of the present looks more like an emergency room – always responding to whatever comes up, often frantically. The tyranny of the present looks tired and often ends up looking like partisan politics because the foundation of why the church exists has been removed – so the church has to find something.
Tyranny of the future is the least common, but it happens. It’s a church that is so stuck on the figuring out the vision and mission that it doesn’t do anything right now. It procrastinates and isn’t a good steward of it’s most important gift – time.
So often much of the disagreement between times ends up being focused on the church building. I often wonder if the church building has become an idol that we worship. In some congregations, they turn the sacred space into a sacred building.
What if we did something different though. Something that would honor the past, be workable for the present and prepare us for the future?
What if we scrapped our church buildings every 25 years (or pick any other time frame). Not completely scrap them, but mostly scrap them. Keep something from the past as a physical reminder of where the church has been and where it has come from. But the idea is that each generation starts with a fresh building that will serve the needs of the community of faith and the surrounding community that the church serves and proclaims the Good News to.
Each new building would tap into the tradition and wisdom of the past – the things that make the church unique because of the community that has gone before. The building would be a tool for the present to use to carry out the mission of the church, with whatever resources were need to do that, but without the maintenance costs of an out of date building. And the building would touch on the future – freeing the next generation to make necessary changes to serve it’s time and people.
Maybe scrapping the church building isn’t practical in a literal sense. But what about figuratively? What if each generation sat down and asked themselves some questions and then started to make changes that were needed, freed from arbitrary obligations set on it from those who are dead, ready to face the realities of the present and touching a vision of what the future might hold, all while not placing restrictions on future generations?
The questions are simple – Why does this church exist? How do we see God active here in this place and in this community? What are we called to? Why are we waiting to get started? What do tools do we need to help us carry out our mission (including what do we need from our building – the biggest tool we have)?
Let’s stop making our church buildings into sacred things that cannot be touched or changed. Instead, let’s recognize them as tools that help us carry out our mission.