Do Buildings Make Churches?

One of the first things people in the United States think of when they hear the word “church” is a church building. In fact, it’s cliché to say “there’s a church on every corner.” In his article Assembly Required, William L. Portier describes some of the responses he received from teenagers when he taught high-school religion: “’Why should I go to Mass? I don’t get anything out of it.’ ‘Why can’t I just pray at home?’ ‘I can be a good Christian without going to church.’ ‘People who go to church are hypocrites anyway’” (12, 2013).

Note the references to going to a place called church. In fact, even Portier himself equates church with a place when he writes, “For my part, as I get older, I find myself looking forward more and more to going to church” (12, 2013). The questions that his teenagers were asking all implied that church was a building, or place, that a believer went to.

As another case in point, in his article When Two Churches Become One, Lincoln Bingham describes the journey of merging two churches;—one predominantly white, the other predominantly African American. In describing the early discussions to merge, Bingham describes what was, to him, the most moving part of the conversation: “…the desire of members of the Shively Heights congregation not to sell their building or to move the congregation to a predominately white neighborhood, but to stay in the community with the expressed purpose of reaching the people of the community” (547, 2011). In a church merger, typically one church’s assets are sold off and the two congregations begin meeting in one church building. Again, this illustrates how strong the connection between the definition of a church and a church building are in the United States. So strong is the connection that we can actually say that two churches with two buildings become one church when they meet together in one building.

The House Church in the Early Church

When the New Testament is examined, it becomes apparent that the early church did not meet in designated church buildings, but rather in homes. Billings observes, “[t]hey met in homes and continued to meet primarily in domestic space until at least such time as the first buildings dedicated to Christian use begin to appear in the archaeological record during the course of the third century” (543, 2011). Billings presents a three stage model of the development of the early church to the point when it employed spaces specifically for the purposes of assembly and worship.

The first stage is the house church (Oikos ecclesiae), the second stage is larger private homes being used exclusively for worship and assembly (Domus ecclesiae), and the third stage is larger homes and halls being renovated specifically for Christian usage (Arus ecclesiae) (545, 2011). Billings demonstrates this three stage model as being Biblical, and approved by the apostle Paul in his development of the Church in Ephesus. “Paul first established a physical presence in Ephesus through the agency of the loyal Priscilla and Aquila….Their home was used as a meeting place and this private domestic space almost certainly functioned as the physical base for Paul’s Ephesian mission… then [Paul] transferred his activities to the enigmatic ‘lecture hall of Tyrannus’ for a period of about two years” (546, 2011). Billings demonstrates that “domestic space played a vital role” (548, 2011) in the building of the early church to the place where they had to meet in a larger place designated specifically for worship.

The House Church in China

The house church movement in China is another important consideration in this matter. Zhaohui Hong estimates membership of Chinese Protestant house churches at “approximately 20-60 million” (249, 2012). Even if the low end of Hong’s estimation is taken as accurate, it becomes immediately apparent that excluding churches without buildings, or designated meeting places, would eliminate a significant portion of those who legitimately call on the name of Jesus Christ.

This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many of the churches must remain underground and are unable to have designated places. Hong notes, “…house church members still suffer from the ‘five no’ policies implemented by the government, namely, they are not allowed to exist legally, build churches, found foreign religious schools, conduct inter-regional church activities or establish connections with overseas churches” (249, 2012). So, not only does excluding churches without buildings exclude many legitimate assemblies, it also makes it impossible for those believers assembling for worship in countries like China to be legitimately called a church because of the government’s restrictions placed upon them.

Church and Youth in America

Adam Copeland’s article No Need for Church laments the fact that in Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota, “45,000 young adults—close to a quarter of the entire population— [are] not connected” (12, 2013) to any churches. Copeland demonstrates that the younger generation feels ostracized by what it perceives as church.

Initially, the young people he interviews seem to take issue mainly with things other than the church building. However, what is fascinating is Copeland’s conclusion: “What I was hearing, over and over again, was not a longing to become connected to an established congregation, but a longing for a space in which nascent faith could be nurtured without judgment” (13, 2013). It is interesting that Copeland describes what the next generation is looking for as a “space.”

Again, the article itself seems to deal more directly with the atmosphere that the people in the place communicate, but that atmosphere seems almost inseparable from the building itself. Copeland writes, “[t]hese people don’t fit in with the population of most mainline churches in town. With the questions they bring and the tattoos they wear, congregations are unsure how to attract them to their churches and, even if they are successful, what to do with them once they’re inside” (13, 2013). Copeland’s article deals specifically with the atmosphere that exists within a church building. He is encouraging congregations to change the atmosphere in their church buildings to become more conversational.

What is interesting, though, is that Copeland does not describe his meetings with young adults outside of the church building as church. He tells the reader that he had over a dozen meetings in pubs and coffee shops with young adults yet never calls those meetings “church.” Copeland writes, “As a pastor I still struggle to adapt. Take [for example] the biweekly Theology Pub session that we host in the basement of a restaurant” (13, 2013). The legitimate question that arises is why can’t we call the biweekly “Theology Pub session” church? If the right atmosphere for worship and study of God’s Word exists for young people in a pub, what keeps us from calling that church? Is it because the pub is not a church building? What essential components exist in the church building that do not exist in the pub?

The Presence of Christ

William Portier in his article Assembly Required: Christ’s Presence in the Pews describes something that, more than a building, is necessary to define a church as a church. Although Portier writes from a Roman Catholic perspective and Protestants would reject his view of Christ’s corporeal presence in the Sacrament, we should whole-heartedly affirm the connection he makes between the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper, and the real presence of Christ in the assembly.

“When I attempt to articulate what I ‘get out of’ going to church, I find myself increasingly emphasizing the real presence of Christ in the assembly…Matthew 18:20 significantly uses the passive voice, ‘whenever two or three are gathered,’ recognizing that although in the daily psychological sense we choose to go to church on Sunday, it is God who gathers us. New Testament writers use this word assembly to refer to what they also call Christ’s ‘body,’ what we call the church. The church assembled by God for worship is in a very real sense the verum corpus, the true body of Christ” (12-13, 2013).

Again, Protestants will reject any notion of the corporeal presence of Christ in the sacrament or the assembly. However, what Portier is getting at here is that in the assembling of believers to worship, and study God’s Word, there is a very real sense in which Christ is present. That reality, that Christ is present where the body of Christ meets, while not singularly sufficient to define a church as a church, is a more essential component than any physical structure that may be dedicated for followers of Christ to worship in.

Conclusion

The early church did not initially utilize buildings as an essential part of what they defined as church. Further, house churches and underground persecuted churches do not utilize dedicated buildings, nor could they be expected to, given the circumstances. The presence of a church building is not sufficient to qualify or disqualify an assembly of believers from being called a church. That means that an assembly of worshiping believers that takes place outside of a designated building can be properly called church if all essential components of a church (a topic outside the scope of this paper) are present. What is more important than where a church meets, is the presence of Christ in that meeting.

References

Billings, B. S. (2011). From house church to tenement church: domestic space and the development of early urban Christianity–the example of Ephesus. Journal Of Theological Studies, 62(2), 541-569. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 9, 2013).

Bingham, L. (2011). When two churches became one. Review & Expositor, 108(4), 545-556. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 9, 2013).

Copeland, A. J. (2012). No need for church: ministry with young adults in flux. Christian Century, 129(3), 12-13. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 9, 2013).

Portier, W. L. (2013). Assembly Required. Commonweal, 140(5), 12-14. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 9, 2013).

Zhaohui, H. (2012). Protecting And Striving For The Rights To Religious Freedom: Case Studies On The Protestant House Churches In China. Journal Of Third World Studies, 29 (1), 249-261. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed June 9, 2013).

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Photo by Kevin Poh via Flickr