Testify or Die

The people of God are the congregation of testimony. We worship and serve the God who intervenes in human history, and we are among those who testify to what He has done. We are to do this with our lives, with our families, and with our collective and corporate worship. We testify, and we are to testify in all that we do. This includes whatever sanctuary we might build. Is the testimony true? If there is no true testimony, there is no true sanctuary.

The ark of the covenant was called the ark of the testimony numerous times (e.g. Ex. 26:34). The two tables of the Ten Commandments were called the “tables of testimony” (Ex. 31:18). The tabernacle was called the “tabernacle of testimony” (Num. 1:53). Our task is always to testify to God’s testimony, responding to it faithfully. God says “I have acted here,” and we say “Yes, He did.” And remember that when we seek to build a testimony, there will be those who don’t want us to—like Sanballat and Nehemiah’s wall.

The philosophers Hume and Kant, in a frenzy of high conceit, helped to banish “testimony” from the modern world as a reliable source of knowledge. We want an idolatrous way of knowing that we think is indubitable. But we are finite, and so it has to be testimony or nothing. Jesus is Lord, so it is testify and live or languish and die.

Celebrity Chefs and Raw Foods

Architecture needs to be, like all other forms of human expression, honest. There must be no pretense, no sham, no attempts at misdirection. Centrally, when we are talking about the architecture of a church, the honesty must be of the kind that plainly recognizes that God is God, and we are not.

When you come into a church to pray, it must be the kind of place that helps you tell the truth, instead of the kind of place that aids and abets in the telling of lies.

There are many examples, but here is just one. It is easy for a traditional church with a very long nave to tell all the people that God is distant, down at the other end. This is not said in so many words, but it is said. And we acknowledge that God is transcendent, utterly beyond us, but in Christ through the gospel, He is the God who is with us, who has come down to us, who is present with us in our assembly. And this is why our seating is in a landscape layout, and not a portrait layout.

Picture the people of God gathering together around the Word and sacrament, the way we would gather around anything that was of great interest to us. This is an architectural expression of what we believe the church is. The church is an assembly of saints – not a long line of supplicants, where you have to stand in the back craning your neck.

And in this, we do not set the Word and sacrament into competition with each other. The service is not a zero-sum game, where the sacrament must give way to the Word or vice versa. Word and sacrament go together the way cooking and eating do. Services with great preaching and no sacrament are like celebrity chef television shows, where a lot of good food is prepared but not eaten. And sacramentalists are the ecclesiastical equivalent of a raw foods movements, where you come to church to get your puny carrot.

So let the stones cry out.

Rendezvous With the Resources

Hudson Taylor once said that God’s work done in God’s way will not lack for God’s supply. What this means is that we, if we are walking in the will of God, are never short. We always have the resources for doing what we are supposed to be doing. If we don’t have the resources for going forward, we have the resources for waiting. If we are supposed to go forward, we will have the resources to do so. And mixed in with this is the teaching of Scripture that sometimes we are to step out in faith. We are to go forward in response to God’s leading, and the resources will meet us at a pre-appointed rendezvous.

Open your mouth and I will fill it, God says. On the mount of the Lord it will be provided. There are times when we have to trust for the resources, but we do this in accordance with the teaching of Scripture, and the examples found throughout Scripture.

Feasting With Strife

As we pay attention to our Christian lives, as we ought to do, we have a tendency to focus on the things we do or have done, as though the whole thing were a matter of bookkeeping in a ledger, instead of taking our actions as indicators or “tells” of what we are turning into. We are either growing up into the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, or we are growing in a slow spiral toward some tragic and very lonesome finality. But the mercy, or the justice, as the case may be, are examples of transformation, not examples of an arbitrary sentencing falling on very similar creatures.

When congregations build church buildings, this is either a testimony or a mask. It is either a declaration of what we are all becoming in Jesus Christ, or it is an attempt to substitute with blocks of stone what God will only receive from tender hearts.

If the latter is the case, it would be far better to forgo building altogether, and just concentrate of getting our hearts right. Neither do we want to be okay with God at the start but have the challenges of building become a point of stumbling. We know how it is possible for someone to be so frazzled by wedding prep that they are in no spiritual shape to enjoy the wedding. Or a woman preparing a celebratory meal to be so overwhelmed by the work that something quite distinct from celebration is being prepared in her heart.

Scripture says this: “Better is a dry morsel, and quietness therewith, than an house full of sacrifices with strife” (Prov. 17:1). In the same way, it would be far better to worship in a gym forever than to build a glorious building that functioned as a wrecking ball for the actual spiritual building, the one made out of living stones.

Fortunately, it is not necessary to choose. But we should always know, if we had to choose, what that choice would be.

So let the stones cry out.

Fundraising and Faith

Another aspect of funding a church building is the important element of faith. We often feel like we are supposed to trust God for “spiritual” things, like our salvation, but that when it comes to finances we have to learn how to be “realistic.” Unfortunately, being realistic often means adopting worldly techniques that could just as easily be used in building a civic auditorium.

But God’s people need to do everything differently. And even when we do something externally similar to what unbelievers might do, the insides of the thing have to be totally differently. Jesus says this about how God cares for us.

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. If then God so clothe the grass, which is to day in the field, and to morrow is cast into the oven; how much more will he clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Luke 12:27–28).

The admonition at the tail end of this says it all. “O ye of little faith” means that we need to learn how to trust the Lord who loves to adorn things. This is a “how much more’ argument, and Jesus says that we are to look at the flowers of the field and reason from that to what God has prepared for your wardrobe. And we are therefore invited to reason from both the flowers of the field and your wardrobe to the way our sanctuary will look and feel when we are done.

Men without faith build things too, and the results of their work are either sterile or excessively gaudy. This is another way of saying that a true and living faith has a lively aesthetic sense.

This means that we must take care to make sure that faith is our motivation in every aspect of this, from the fund-raising to the placement of the cross on the steeple.

So let the stones cry out.

Why Build?

Why have a church building? What is the point? What are we trying to do with it?

The first reason is one that sanctuaries share with all buildings whatever. That reason is the wind, snow, rain, and so on. God has put us in a world where we require shelter in order to do the things that God has called us to do. Even foxes have holes, and birds have nests, as the Lord pointed out (Matt. 8:20), and we are creatures also.

The second reason has to do with the opportunity to glorify God. We are not the only creatures who build shelters, but we are the only creatures who talk by means of them. We are the only creatures who decorate them. From stadiums to skyscrapers, man uses brick and concrete and re-bar to speak. For churches, we ought to use these things to preach.

The third reason is that a building—used rightly—becomes a staging area, an organizational point for all the things the church is called to do during the course of the week. In our case, this would include evangelism and outreach, college ministry, benevolence, and so forth.

And forth, a building is a casing, a receptacle, to house God’s people doing what God commanded us centrally to do. What is that? We are told to gather weekly, to hear Scripture read, to sing psalms and hymns, to hear the Word of God proclaimed, and to break bread together. We are supposed to get together in order to love one another.

Last, we build because we are human beings. When human beings are stirred up, the first thing that happens is building. When the Spirit moves among His people, He motivates them to shape the world in a particular way, and to have that shape acquire something of a permanent form. If we do not do this, it means that we have not been stirred, we are not moved. But that is not the case here.

So let the stones cry out.

Wasted on God?

It is obvious that building a sanctuary takes a lot of money, and compared to what most families handle in the course of their operations, it takes a lot of it. At some point in the preparations or building, it is therefore likely that someone will ask whether or not this expenditure is “wasteful.”

Though it may seem prudent and wise, it is actually the logic of Judas. “Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, which should betray him, Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?” (John 12:4–5). The short form is that if it is not somehow being spent on us, or in ways that we can directly benefit from, it is being wasted. If it is spent on glorifying God, we tend to think we are pouring water into sand.

How about a multi-purpose building? That way we could give God His gift, and we could use it too. Kind of a time-share tithe.

Now there are obvious ways in which we could pretend to glorify God while not actually doing so. If we built a sanctuary out in the wilderness that we visited every fifty years — that would not be a good use of resources. But we want to build a sanctuary is used regularly and constantly, and in the advancement of God’s kingdom.

This will include evangelism, and benevolence, and other ways of reaching out to our unbelieving community. But beauty lifted up to Heaven is not an adjunct to what we are called to do; it is the very center of what we are called to do. Worship of God is no afterthought. A visual statement of God’s heavenly authority, an acoustic space that enables us to praise Him in glory, a place on earth set apart to indicate our ongoing obligations to true worship of the true God – these are not throw away items.

So the use of money to accomplish such things is something that pleases God. He does not want us to adopt the hard logic of the pragmatic Judas. He wants us to lift our eyes to higher things, and money is simply a tool for helping us do this.

So let the stones cry out.

A Box in the Back

In the matter of giving and receiving, the church has responsibilities, just as the giver does. We have seen that God wants His people to refrain from giving financially when there are unresolved conflicts in the church. We have also seen that giving is a response of obedience over time, and not the result of an emotional warp spasm. But what responsibility does the church have?

The first is that the church is responsible to be teaching the people the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We are not to teach what the Bible says in bits and pieces, but rather are to gather it all up in a systematic whole. But this includes teaching the people what the church should do in the presence of the people, and not just what the people should do for the church.

When it comes to godly fund-raising, there are two basic methods employed in the Bible. When Paul puts the godly squeeze on the saints, it is for the sake of distributing practical relief to others (2 Cor. 9:2-4). Even there, there is a point made of having accountability (2 Cor. 8:18-20), but Paul does lean on the saints to dig deep and give . . . to the poor.

When it comes to building construction or reconstruction, the method we see in Scripture is the method of putting a box at the entry way of the sanctuary. This is how the Temple was rebuilt under Jehoash. “But Jehoiada the priest took a chest, and bored a hole in the lid of it, and set it beside the altar, on the right side as one cometh into the house of the Lord: and the priests that kept the door put therein all the money that was brought into the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 12:9). We also see that this is how donations were taken in at the Temple at the time of Jesus. The Lord watched as the widow woman put her two mites into the offering box at the entry to the Temple (Mark 12:42).

This is why, incidentally, we don’t pass the plate during the worship service. We present our tithes and offerings as part of our worship, but we don’t collect them that way. When we pass anything around, it is to distribute, to give. When we celebrate the Supper together, the elders send men out into the congregation to give, not to take. And when the Lord leads you to give, you may do so at the entry, and with no one looking over your shoulder.

So let the stones cry out.