I come from a church tradition that has a very utilitarian approach to church buildings. We have insisted that “church” = “people,” and so to call a building a church is a categorical mistake. We have insisted on Christ’s rule over all things and so considered any one place being defined as more holy than another to be nonsense. We have rejected the kind of religiosity that requires “keeping quiet in church” and venerating particular objects that might be found in church buildings. (Actually, we loathe that kind of religiosity!)
Had you asked me five years ago what my ideal church building would be, I would have replied, “A warehouse.” Functional, non-religious, large—that was it. Ask me today and I would say, “A traditional church building.” Why? Partly for missiological reasons. As even the unchurched tend to have an awareness of where church buildings are due to their architectural distinctiveness, it is often far easier to invite friends to things that are happening in such buildings. When you say, “It’s happening at St. So-and-So’s,” they are more likely to know where you mean than if you are trying to give directions to your nondescript warehouse on the nondescript industrial estate on the edge of town.
That is part of the reason, but another, and perhaps larger one, is that I have become increasingly sacramental and grown in my appreciation of the significance of symbols. This appreciation begins with the most important symbols of all: the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
As I have previously observed, confusing the symbol with the thing signified is a constant danger for the Church. We see this in both “high” and “low” expressions of church. High churches can seem to make so much of the ritual of infant baptism, or the beauty of the eucharist, that what water, bread and wine actually symbolize is lost. The symbol gains within itself a significance that obscures that which is meant to be signified. In low churches, things look different but reflect a similar confusion—believer baptism and communion being reduced to the merely symbolic, with no sense of the power present in the thing signified.
As I have given more thought to these things, I have moved from an essentially Zwinglian position to a more Calvinist understanding of the Lord’s Supper. I have also deepened my understanding of the spiritual power and significance of baptism. I now see them much more clearly as not mere symbols but as matters of real spiritual power. They are truly objective, and they are essential. Baptism really is part of the “salvation package,” and the Lord’s Supper really is a moment in which we feed on Christ. To downplay baptism to the level of, “It’s good, but the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized so it doesn’t matter too much if you are” is to entirely miss the point. To make our worship services more about the style of songs we sing than the Saviour who feeds us is also to miss the point. So I find myself making much more of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and really expecting Christ to minister to his people through them.
The thing is, once these moves are made it becomes easier to see the power of other symbols, such as buildings. Even though these things are by no means sacraments, they can be sacred.
I still believe church = people. I still think there is a sense in which buildings are just buildings. I still detest religiosity that turns church buildings into museums. I would be more than happy for my church to worship in a warehouse. (Anyone got a large sum of cash they want to give me so I can buy one?!) I also have no objections to meeting in a bar, nightclub, college lecture hall or whatever, and in some contexts would deliberately choose to do so. But I would be very happy were we to be given the use of a beautiful old parish church (or even an ugly old gospel hall).
As well as the pragmatic reasons of the visibility of such buildings there is something sacred that buildings can represent. Buildings tell a story—architecture really does matter. We all know this instinctively, and it was proved decisively in the modernist post-war experiment that saw people crammed into very functionally rational, but soul- and community-destroying tower blocks. We are physical creatures. We live in a built environment, and will do so eternally. This stuff counts.