Who Needs A Temple? Who Needs A Church Building?

          Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families.  And they brought up the ark of the Lord and the tent of meeting and all the sacred furnishings in it.  King Solomon and the entire assembly of Israel were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be counted.
          The priests brought the ark of the Lord to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim.
          When the priests withdrew, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord.  And the priests could not perform their service because the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
          Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;  I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.  I have succeeded David my father and now I sit on the throne of Israel, and I have built the temple for the God of Israel.”                                                  

—1 Kings 8:1, 4-6, 10-12, 20

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Imagine this:

It is the year 2031—fifteen years from now.  Personal circumstances have made it necessary for you to move away from the town you have lived in most of your life.  Since leaving, you have become disconnected with your old friends and with day-to-day events in your old community.  You have stopped receiving news about who is doing what, what new shops are opening on Main Street, and who had divorced and retired and died.  And now it is August 2031, and you have just returned to your old hometown for a high school reunion.  It is your first time back since you left eight years ago.

On Sunday morning you decide to go to church—and your heart skips a beat as you approach the familiar old church building.  You remember going to Sunday School there as a child—and playing on the playground equipment.  But as you walk through those oversized front doors that you remember so well, you are greeted by . . . subdued lighting, smells of incense, and an elderly Asian man wearing a robe.  He greets you.  Welcome to the Community Buddhist Center!

“Wait a minute,” you protest.  You are here for the morning worship service!  “This is the church—!”

“Ahh!,” the man tells you.  “Old church does not exist anymore.  I’m very sorry!  This building is now a Buddhist temple.  Come in, please!”

These were the opening paragraphs in a sermon I preached recently at one of two churches I was serving.  My congregants hated the sermon—they despised it—largely because I asked them to imagine their church going out of business and selling its worship space to a group of Buddhists.  Like many struggling churches today, I knew that our congregation was anxious—both about its ability to maintain its large, aging building—and, relatedly, about its future viability as a church.  Not surprisingly, my sermon—or at least my first four or five paragraphs—aggravated both of those concerns.

Even so, I will ask you the same questions that I voiced in my sermon that morning—because they are important:  Would such a conversation at your church’s front door, with an elderly Asian man who is dressed in a robe disturb you?  Would it bother you or me if we moved away from our community, and returned a few years later only to find that our beloved church was now a Buddhist temple?

Or would it bother us if our church went on for a few more years, and then closed its doors shortly after we died?  I mean, it shouldn’t really upset us because we’ll be dead, right?  But would it disturb us if we knew before we died that this would happen?

I told my congregation that it would bother me a lot.  And then I added:  “I assume it would bother you a lot as well.”

But why would it?  Would it somehow lessen our faith, would it lessen our Jesus or our God, if our church sold its building to a local Buddhist group?  Or if our church went out of business entirely?

This was the dilemma that confronted Solomon as he and all of Israel gathered to dedicate the Temple, the house of God.  It is the dream of all political leaders to be remembered for outstanding accomplishments.  Almost as soon as Solomon became King of Israel, he began an extensive building program.  He built whole cities where once there was only desert.  But his crowning achievement was the building of the Temple.

There had long been talk of building a temple to the glory of God.  In Moses’ day, the Israelites believed that God dwelled in a tent.  Since the people were wandering through the desert and living in tents themselves, it made sense to regard God as dwelling in a tent;  that way, God would be accessible to the people.  But when the Israelites arrived in the promised land and began living in permanent houses in villages and towns, it no longer seemed right for God to dwell in a tent.  God needed a permanent home.  So Solomon assembled the world’s finest architects and builders to construct a temple unlike any structure known.  Many Israelites labored to finish construction in seven years.

Dedication Day was a special occasion.  The elders and the heads of all the tribes assembled, and there was much fanfare, as the ark of the covenant was moved into the Temple, its new, permanent home.

And then “a cloud filled the house of God, and the priests could not stand to minister there because the glory of God filled the Temple.”  It was said that at that very moment fire shot down from heaven.  Perhaps the only thing missing was a marching band!  Solomon—perhaps anticipating the bluster of American real estate developer and presidential candidate Donald Trump three millennia later—proclaimed boastfully, “I have built an exalted house, a place for God to dwell forever.”

Now, Temples are useful things.  So are church buildings.  It is comforting to know that there is a place where we can go to feel God’s presence.  Away from our problems, in the quietness of the sanctuary, we are able to search for peace of mind.  It is not unusual in city churches to find people who stop in during the day, seeking comfort.  When life gets rough, when loved ones die, or a marriage dissolves, or health problems ensue, many of us will sit in the church, hoping to feel God’s presence.

Perhaps that is why so many of us feel an emotional attachment to our church and to our church building.  Churches and church buildings are supposed to be permanent institutions—like God, baseball, Chevrolet, and the American Dream.  I certainly understand why people don’t want their church, their church building, or anything having to do with how they practice their religion, to change.  And I understand my congregation’s lack of enthusiasm when I asked them to imagine our church building becoming a community Buddhist center.

Even so, our reading from 1 Kings, as well as Bible history, raise complicating questions about Temples—and about church buildings.

We are in the habit of calling our religious buildings churches and “Houses of God;”  and it is convenient to focus on such building as the center of our spiritual lives.  But as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the United Church of Christ asks in a “Sermon Seed” reflection (http://www.ucc. org/worship_samuel, Sunday, August 23, 2015), “where does God truly live”?  Is the brick-and-mortar (or the sheetrock-and-vinyl-siding) building really the church?  Of course not—the real church is the people who worship in that building!  And is the church building the only place where we can find God?  Surely not—for God “is” everywhere.  God lives within us—in our “hearts.”  And God lives in our church, as well as in other churches.  But God also lives in our homes, and God lives in the Adirondacks when we go camping or hunting there.  And God accompanies us to Disneyland when we take our children there.  And God rides with us in our vehicles, when we drive to work or go shopping.

The God who loves us can be found in church, but God is not limited to one fixed place.  Solomon realized this when he admitted in his prayer, “Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  God cannot be limited or inhibited by human hands or buildings.  God is beyond our control.

We also know that everything in this life, everything except God, is impermanent, and changes or wears out—and this certainly includes our cars, our human bodies, and church buildings.  Entropy is a basic law of the universe.  Can we live with that?  Would you and I be okay knowing that our church isn’t permanent?  Or that our church building will someday fall into disrepair, or get torn down, or be sold to a Buddhist meditation group?

A related question is:  How much Temple can we afford?  A magnificent building can cost tens of thousands of dollars (and in some cases, $50,000 to $60,000 or more) annually, to heat in the winter, cool in the summer, and keep in good repair.  The Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, tells us that more and more churches are being confronted with the unpalatable choice of keeping their minister but having to sell their building—or keeping their buildings but having to let their ministers go.  Increasingly, American churches are unable to afford both their buildings and their clergy.

The dedication of the Temple was Solomon’s finest hour.  Solomon anticipated that the Temple would inspire people in distant lands to learn of God’s power.  He imagined that foreigners would visit Jerusalem, see this magnificent building, and be converted to the God of the Israelites.  It sounded good.  “If you build it, they will come.”  An impressive building will draw people to God—who can criticize that?  But this extreme focus on the Temple was subtly insidious.  Over and over again, the Bible warns us against worshiping false images of God.  Was the Temple in danger of becoming an idol?  Can church buildings today become idols?  What do we worship—God or our building?

Over and over again in the Hebrew Bible, Rev. Matthews notes, we see a tension between the priestly realm which sought to maintain the institutions and the rules of Judaism—and the prophetic realm which recognized that God could not be contained in the dry traditions and rules of one narrow religion, but that God is present in each of us, and that true religion means going outside the Temple, outside the church building, and into the community, to care for the widow and orphan, to visit the sick and the prisoner, and to do good unto our neighbors.

Jesus represented that prophetic realm—that new way of thinking about religion.   “Consider the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field,” he said.  If Solomon’s temple represented the old system of worship, with its priests and sacrifices and rules, Jesus represented the New Covenant.  From now on, Jesus said, God will dwell within you.  Each of you is a temple.  No longer do you need to worship God only in one place, in one Temple or church.

Historians tell us that Solomon’s Temple was built in 832 B.C.E., and that it was destroyed 410 years later by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar.  It was rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah, but it was destroyed a second time in 70 A.D., and after that, it was never rebuilt.  Today there is no Temple in Israel.  Neither Jewish religious worship nor Judaism require a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem.

What about today?  What does God have in mind for your church and my church?  Could it be that God is doing a new thing that diminishes the importance of church buildings with their “buildings and grounds committees” and large “physical plant maintenance” budgets;  a new thing that eliminates the pressure of having to collect a lot of money every month just for institutional upkeep;  a new thing that frees up churchgoers and their dollars to engage in the work of outreach and mission?  I’m not sure, but I’d love to know what you think.

So I’m curious:  What has been your experience with churches and church buildings?  I began this blog by telling you about my disastrous sermon—the one with an imaginary story about our church being converted into a community Buddhist center.  Imagine that happening to your church.  How would you feel?  What does the church and its building represent to you?  Is it your home, or God’s home, or both?  What makes it a sacred space for you?

How much Temple can you and I—and church people throughout North America—afford today?  Think of this as an ongoing cost-benefit calculation:  Are the benefits of maintaining our churches’ aging buildings so important to you and me that we are willing to continue paying our fair share of the costs of building upkeep, in addition to the cost of salaries and programs, month after month?  In many cases such giving requires genuine financial sacrifice on the part of church members and their families.  Of course, as a pastor, I of all people can easily endorse the idea that we should give generously and even sacrificially to the church and to its ministries—and I would tell you to do the same.  But the reality is that many of us today are living on fixed incomes, and/or have numerous family expenses, and/or are unable to give more than a few dollars each week.  Can churches maintain their big buildings without gutting their worship, education, and missions programs, and losing their pastor(s)?  Is the old way of doing church sustainable?

In Real Good Church (Cleveland:  Pilgrim, 2014), the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, a UCC Pastor, predicts that in twenty years’ time, as many as 80 percent of currently-existing churches will be out of business.  From what you see of religious life and church attendance—in your own congregation, in your community, and across America—do you agree with Baskette?  Why or why not?  Is the problem churches face today just about a shortage of dollars?  What feelings does this possibility, of large-scale church closures, evoke in you?

So where is the Gospel in all this?  Where is the good news?  I see several things that are “good news:”
  • God is always with us.  God is not tied to one particular building or congregation or denomination.
  • There is a widespread sentiment throughout the church today that God is doing a new thing—even though, right now, many of us can barely make out the contours of what that new thing is.  It will be exciting to see how God transforms the church—and us—in the years ahead.
  • Jesus said that he is the vine, and we are the branches, and God is the horticulturist who prunes us with a cosmic pair of shears (John 15).  Pruning is always a good thing.  Some churches may die, but the remainder will be strengthened.
  • For the followers of Jesus, resurrection—new life—always follows death.

As Jesus’ followers, we say that we believe in resurrections.  But for resurrections to occur, deaths have to happen first.  I suspect that we need to stop thinking of the sale of a church building or the closure of a church (or even of many churches) as a failure.  If some existing churches sell their buildings or go out of business, perhaps their resources and buildings can live on . . . and bring blessing to other church groups and congregations—and yes, even to community Buddhist centers.

What do you think?