Vol 11 No. 33 Church Buildings

Dear friends,

I am not sure why I have chosen to write on this topic in the middle of the summer. Is it because I hope no one will read it, or that I can no longer suppress the urge to express my concern?

When I first began working in this family of churches, I got several guides to church buildings and architecture and made them available in the resource library. They remain undisturbed, unread, and by much of the building I see around me, have had utterly no impact on how we build God’s house.

Architecture, aesthetics, place in community, and function are intimately intertwined and not exclusive of each other. In a book that noted church buildings in all of Canada, only two Baptist churches were included, and of those, only West Vancouver Baptist was worthy of note. And it is indeed worthy of note, for its cedar and glass, set in a forest setting, points to the Creator, His creation, and our obligation to first and foremost honour Him in whatever we build. I think of what church buildings are for when I re-read God’s comments to Solomon in 2 Chronicles 7:12-16.

Then the Lord appeared to Solomon in the night and said to him: “I have heard your prayer, and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. 13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” (NRSV)

God appeared to Solomon that very night and said, “I accept your prayer; yes, I have chosen this place as a temple for sacrifice, a house of worship. If I ever shut off the supply of rain from the skies or order the locusts to eat the crops or send a plague on my people, and my people, my God-defined people, respond by humbling themselves, praying, seeking my presence, and turning their backs on their wicked lives, I’ll be there ready for you: I’ll listen from heaven, forgive their sins, and restore their land to health. From now on I’m alert day and night to the prayers offered at this place. Believe me, I’ve chosen and sanctified this Temple that you have built: My Name is stamped on it forever; my eyes are on it and my heart in it always.” (The Message)

Note God’s promise to be present and available to us when we turn to Him in a time of trouble. They are powerful words. God is sanctifying and sealing his relationship with Solomon as he does with each of us, through the person, work, life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We have disestablished the building as a meeting place between one another, as the body/bride of Christ; we have disestablished an expectation that within a building there can be important, significant expectation of God’s presence. This is not to sanctify space, this is to sanctify the heart of the believer, coming together with other believers to respond to what God promises Solomon, not just in a temple made with hands; “Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. For now I have chosen and consecrated this house so that my name may be there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time.”

There are many outstanding examples of church building and renovation in the CBWC family. I am going to mention some in point form, so that the narrative is not too abrupt.

First Baptist Church Vancouver has taken a very congregational style of building from the early part of the last century and transformed it with the use of banner, colour, biblical story and metaphor in such a way that it draws, but does not distract, the worshipper.

Strathcona Baptist in Edmonton, AB was built by Dewey DeVries (who built many of our churches). My father was the pastor. As a 10 year old I remember being part of a volunteer labour crew and travelling up a very dodgy ladder with a father who did not like heights. I have a picture of myself and other kids surrounding Dewey and G. Fred McNally during the cornerstone laying ceremony. There was a controversy at opening day at “Scona”; the focal point of the worship space is a “lifesize” wooden cross above the baptistery. My father complained that the cross looked too smooth and not worthy of the suffering of Christ. He had the carpenters go back to it and take the finish off. Crosses can be confusing in worship space; Scona’s cross had no ambiguity about it.

I would be remiss not to mention that there is one church on the prairies that looks like an abandoned Soviet-era missile silo. It is too painful to elaborate.

Clive Baptist Church, AB has the most remarkable, well-thought out interior church. It is the creation of the prayerful waiting of the congregation and the courage to change the design part way through their process. It is also designed as a community sanctuary or refuge, so the kitchen and washrooms can receive evacuees. It is an aesthetic and functional delight. It has to be experienced to be believed and is worth the trip.

Westview Baptist in Calgary, AB went through great challenges in building and paying for a magnificently functional building, which particularly addresses the educational needs of children and adults. It is a testimony to persistence and one very significant thing – despite the financial challenge, Westview tithed 10% of its building fundraising goals. They did it for church planting in AB, they contributed surpluses to the CBWC, despite their own duress. God has been faithful, along with the many congregations that have found their “start” at Westview. God has been faithful to Westview’s core congregation and growth.

Meaningful, spiritual experiences can take place anywhere in God’s creation – outside in a beautiful landscape, in someone’s living room or basement, in the courageous eloquent and harsh environment of an arid inner-city highway median where Jodi Spargur has led services during Vancouver summers with God’s House of Many Faces Church. There are many places of meaningful encounter with God; as the Celts say, many “thin places” where God seems closer than in other places.

I ask us that when we renovate, build, or seek out a place where the body of Christ meets, that we more seriously consider that our utilitarian, sometimes over functional attitude towards a church building tells the community how little we think of God’s house.

The confusion of metaphors in sectarian Protestant church buildings are to some degree a legitimate reaction to the excesses of pre-Reformation worship spaces. We have had 500 years to regain our equilibrium from reacting to those issues; we have had almost as long to recover from the Puritan suppression of the 1660’s in England. These concerns are cautionary tales, yet they should not be the wind that fills our sails in these matters.

The passage in 2 Chronicles talks about the Queen of Sheba visiting Solomon and being over-awed by many things, including the temple. There is not a suggestion here that a building, any building, should over-awe anyone, but that any place where we have covenanted to meet with God and He has covenanted to meet with us, comes dripping with the anticipation, with the holy.

Please find the questions and comments in this piece to be of encouragement in our ongoing reflection, not a criticism. The sacrifice that has been made in time and money to build places, not only of worship, but multi-functional community and hospitality are sacrifices that God honours and continues to bless down through the years.

Next week we shall talk about church as sanctuary and shelter and of the time I needed to flee the church and find another one in the middle of a service.


In Christ,

Jeremy Bell