I used to love spending time at my friends’ houses as a kid. It was a new environment, one that was different from my own. The smells were different, the furniture and color schemes were different, and many times the rules were different too. It fascinated me.
I think you can tell a lot about a person or family simply by walking into their house.
Some houses feel sterile and controlled, others are homey and lived in. Some feel chaotic and neglected, others are warm and cared for. A lot of this has to do with how the family simply exists within the house, how they interact, the words and tones they use to communicate with each other. Some of it has to do with the way the house is physically cared for, and a lot of it is affected by the atmosphere created by decorations, heirlooms, nick knacks, or trinkets. Is the house essentially a large display case for Start Trek memorabilia, or are the walls bare except for a few pieces of modern art? Are the shelves lined with pictures of family and loved ones, or are they stocked with treasures from past travels? When you walk into another person’s house, you can get a pretty clear snapshot of who they are and what is important to them.
It’s quite an intimate experience if you think about it.
I don’t think churches are any different. Every church has its own feel, its own architecture and set-up. The pews may be made of solid wood or softly cushioned. The chapel my be designed to face the pulpit and lectern face-on, or curve around the cross. A baptismal font may be found at the entrance to the sanctuary or at the front of the chapel. You can walk into a church and immediately get a feel for what is important there.
Just like every family has its own story, every congregation has its own history, and the houses in which each live become a reflection of those histories.
There is one big difference I have noticed lately, though. No one ever questions the importance of maintaining the comfort and beauty of a house. Wallpaper starts to peel and we replace it with new paint. We hire plumbers and electricians to keep our houses running efficiently. Our color schemes or décor become outdated and we update or replace them without question. We provide safe and attractive toys and equipment for our children. We decorate with enthusiasm.
When we move to do the very same things in our churches, however, it is often scoffed at or ridiculed.
Many believe we should be doing other things with the Church’s money- feeding the poor or ending homelessness. Some say that by beautifying and updating our churches we are putting our priorities in the wrong place, in superficial, worldly matters. Some worry that when the world sees our beautiful, well maintained facilities we will be judged as being selfish with our resources. I really can’t blame those who see it this way, the Church does have a history of existing in extravagance while the surrounding people suffered- stealing from the poor and enjoying the spoils. I don’t think that is really what we are talking about here, though. We are talking about being good stewards, being trusted with a little (ensuring that a church and its congregants are healthy and flourishing) so that we may be trusted with a lot (doing the same for the surrounding community).
A house is a place in which a family is nurtured and cared for so that they will have the strength and energy to go out into the world and do their work.
A church is very much the same. We need to ensure that we are building a nurturing place in which to feed people’s souls and speak the gospel- a place where congregants can find rest, be strengthened and fortified, so that they can then go out into the world and serve their neighbors.
We sometimes forget that spending time and money on our churches does serve the greater community.
We forget that the surrounding neighborhood benefited from my church’s playground, that artwork in a sanctuary can be viewed for free by anyone on a Sunday morning. Not only do these things inherently serve our community, but they create more opportunities to speak the Word of God to those that need to hear it.
They also show our community, and potential future congregants, that we can be trusted to take care of what has been given to us, that we take those gifts seriously, and that we have the capacity to give them the support and nurturing they need.
We must keep in mind that the way we care for and maintain our churches not only reflects our history and identity as a congregation but it also speaks to who we are as God’s children, as stewards of His gifts. Most of all, though, we must keep in mind that it reflects our theology and affects the ways in which we are able to present the gospel.