It is no small wonder that church sanctuaries in America have expanded over the past couple of decades. We like everything big: big-box stores selling things we don’t need, mega multiplex theaters that show very little worth seeing, sports arenas that can seat the entire population of some towns, and large-scale chain restaurants that serve broad, unappetizing menus to our ever widening derrieres. The church is gravitating in the same direction to accommodate the masses. It seems that most churches have perpetual building campaigns. Doing so makes little sense from the perspective that these massive buildings will find themselves in the lake of fire when this world meets its end.
In early recorded history, people tried to reach God by building ziggurats. Genesis 11 provides the account of the Tower of Babel, which the builders thought could serve as a stairway to heaven. The first problem with this was that it was not commanded by God. The people did so to make name for self among mortals not to improve their standing with their creator. They also mistook physical proximity to the sky for an indicator of relationship with God. God subsequently divided their languages, which ended their futile effort.
As God led the Hebrew children from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land, he ordered the priests to maintain a tent of meeting as a portable dwelling place symbolizing God’s presence among them. Jerusalem was a sacred place in Israel because it was thought God lived there. Psalm 46:4 calls Jerusalem the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God later ordered the building of the Temple in Jerusalem as a sacred space for the Israelites’ worship and ritualistic activities. King Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, was quick to acknowledge upon his completion of the temple: But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You, how much less this house which I have built! (I Kings 8:27).
The temple served its purpose, but was by no means construed as God’s only presence in the world. Neither was it immune from God’s wrath. The prophet Jeremiah warned that God would destroy the temple if the trust of the people became misplaced:
While you were doing all these things, declares the LORD, I spoke to you again and again, but you did not listen; I called you, but you did not answer. Therefore, what I did to Shiloh I will now do to the house that bears my Name, the temple you trust in, the place I gave to you and your ancestors. I will thrust you from my presence, just as I did all your fellow Israelites, the people of Ephraim.’ (Jeremiah 7:13-15).
Although the temple was sacred and special, it was by no means absolute. From the very beginning, people violated its sanctity and misconstrued God’s purpose for it. Not only that, when the temple was eventually destroyed and the Israelites were in exile and captivity, they fell into despondency as if God was no longer present.
Jesus came as the embodiment of a new temple. Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus to the temple to consecrate him to God, as required by the Law. Jesus made the importance of the temple abundantly clear from his childhood. He lingered behind at the Temple in Jerusalem as Mary and Joseph made their way back home. After journeying for a day, they doubled back to the city to find a snarky adolescent greeting them with: “Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). I am sure this went over very well with Joseph.
Jesus also revealed his identity early in his ministry at a synagogue in Galilee by reading from the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing .” (Luke 4:18-21).
Jesus frequented the temple and used temple imagery in his language that flew over the heads of not only the religious leaders, but also his own disciples. When asked to provide a sign to prove his authority to perform miracles, Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” (John 2:19). He was even mocked from the cross with reminders of his claim. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40). While it is easy for us to stand on the other side of the resurrection and view them with disdain, we still don’t comprehend that Jesus freed us from the confines of a temple.
In Jesus’ final teaching after his resurrection and before his Ascension, he issued the Great Commission: therefore go and [disciple] all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”(Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus’ finished work on the cross was the perfect sacrifice fulfilling the ritualistic requirements for atoning for sin. The new covenant unified what was scattered in response to earlier attempts to get to God in the physical realm. The ushering in of the Spirit at Pentecost unified believers unto this day to be God’s presence in the world.
Ezekiel 37:26-27 establishes that a time will come when God will make a new covenant with humanity and dwell permanently with God’s people.
I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.
The book of Revelation refers to new Jerusalem as the ideal state restored to God’s order permanently. Verse 21:2 describes the new Jerusalem as the holy city coming out of heaven from God. The writer further uses language to describe it as intimate fellowship that God has promised to those in covenant with him. Biblical scholar Robert Gundry takes a bold step in saying John is not describing the eternal dwelling place of saints; he is describing them, and them alone.” In other words, the New Jerusalem is not a heavenly city; it is the fleshly temples of those who believe. This newness raises saints to the cause of Christ beyond temporality and worldliness. Apostle Paul makes it very clear: Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; (I Corinthians 6:19).
Knowing all that we know, why are we building wider spatially rather than going deeper into ourselves? Christians have return to primacy of the temple in the community of faith as opposed to being God’s presence in the world. Some churches are housed on sprawling campuses with scores of acres. Just as one mega church is complete, here come plans for another as some pastors get caught in the throes of steeple envy. Others view the relative success of large land-holding churches and follow suit like League of Dreams. “If you build it they will come.”
Church membership has become a very transient affair. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a big beautiful church in most metropolitan areas. Some are so immodest that they command you to come inside and take a peek. A hard truth that congregations everywhere are learning is that people are drawn to new edifices in a sensory manner. A church can be the flavor of the month until the next bigger and more beautiful one is built. Then who is left holding the bag?
Just as owners of McMansions are finding themselves overextended, so are the McChurches. Church borrowing and building followed the same boom as residential and commercial development in the late 1990s and 2000s. Just as the effects of the economic downturn and financial risk have hit individuals, foreclosure proceedings against churches have tripled in the past three years. Over 100 churches have also filed bankruptcy this year alone.
Some jurisdictions have passed measures limiting the proportion of land used for religious organizations within them. Some churches consider this a form of modern persecution, when in fact they may be saving us from ourselves. Just as the hubris of reaching God vertically led to a failed tower, the image of success has become the strongest selling point for some churches to capture their market for believers. So what are we to do? Remember, Jesus built no buildings and his ministry turned out all right.