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What makes a church – buildings or people?

What makes a church – buildings or people?

Ronald Allen

Until they grow weary, I suspect that most visitors to Europe find themselves greatly impressed by the many churches and cathedrals that dot the continent. My wife, Beverly, and I in our trips have visited with great interest church in nearly all the countries in Western Europe, and even a few in the countries of the former Soviet bloc, including some glorious churches in Moscow. 

But a question often comes to mind: are these “churches” or “church buildings”? Even when we speak of buildings as “churches,” we realize that it is the people of God who make His churches. The buildings in which the people of God gather are merely buildings. How sad to discover that in some of the loveliest of buildings, the congregations are sparse, and at times, no longer even exist. Also saddening are the signs in several languages posted at the entrance of nearly every building that read, “silence!”

This summer, my wife and I had opportunities to be in ancient places of worship and to use them for our own worship of the living God. 

One occasion was in Jerusalem. Most evangelical tour groups make their way along the Via Dolorosa— the Way of Sorrows— toward the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Few who leave the building at the end of the twisted pathway find themselves happy with what they have found. The old Crusader church ought to be the greatest building in Christendom. It marks not only the traditional site of the death of the Savior but the traditional site of His resurrection.

(I am well aware of, and have been a frequent guest at, the Garden Tomb across from Damascus Gate. But the archaeological evidence for the authenticity of the Garden Tomb is sight, and that for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is significant.)

Here is my point: that which should be the finest church building in the world is more an embarrassment, at least to those who are distant from Eastern-rite church practices and aesthetic concepts. One group vies for space against another; priests bully other priests. Little in the church is ennobling to the spirit. 

On our study tours of Israel, we always have our communion service in one of the shelters in the Garden Tomb area. We would not be allowed to worship in the old domed church building within the walls of Jerusalem. But in the gardens of the Garden Tomb, we find a splendid place for reflection on the Savior’s death and resurrection. How strange, though, that our best worship place in Jerusalem is not in a church building! 

But, here is something that most evangelical tour groups do not know: they may sing their praises to the Lord in a wonderful church building at the very beginning of the route in the Old City.

Most pass by this church, the Church of St. Anne, on their way to the back where the ruins may still be seen of the Pool of Bethesda (see John 5:2,3).

We do not pass by this church. We come prepared to sing. The stone walls of this Crusader church resonate with sound. We wait our turn, as many groups do come here to sing. I suspect that on a given day, ours is likely the only American evangelical group to sing in this building. Most who sing here sing in German, Italian, or French or in varied African languages. Most are likely Catholic groups.

We also come here to sing in a building built for music. And the building becomes for us the place for the meeting with God and man.

Later in the summer, my wife and I were on a bicycling tour of Ireland. We pedaled to the village of Adare in County Limerick, billed as “the most picturesque village in Ireland.”

Among the three grand medieval churches in Adare is one called the Church of Adare. The building was begun in 1315 as an Augustinian priority. It was known as the “old Black Abbey,” but it is now the parish hall of the Church of Ireland (in communion with the Church of England). Unlike so many medieval parish churches of Ireland that were quite destroyed during the many wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, this wonderful building has survived, though it fell into disrepair following the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in 1536.

The restoration of the old Black Abbey began in 1808, and today this old building is used again for worship.

When Beverly and I entered the building, we found ourselves to be completely alone— what a rarity when visiting old church buildings. We looked at the glorious stained windows, read citations of believers who are buried in or near the church, observed the wonderful wood carvings, then sat in a pew and prayed for the congregation that still worships here.

Then we got out hymnals from an unlocked glass cabinet. And we sang. Just the two of us along in that great building of massive stone walls; a high, vaulted wooden ceiling; and glorious colored glass.

The building was a church, and there we worshipped the living God.

Oh— no letters on the Garden Tomb, please. 

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