A building speaks of permanence. So when we build a church building—especially if there is a lot of brick and stone involved—this speaks of permanence as well. But we have to be careful. For Christians, this material world is not the final state of things. However, this does not mean that the final state of things will be ethereal, or spooky, or wispy, or spiritual in any of those senses.
The solidity of a church building speaks of the ultimate solidity of the new creation, when matter will receive its final glorification in the resurrection, and when atoms will be packed together far more densely than they are now. Your salvation, and the salvation of all God’s people, is far more real than anything you have ever experienced.
All of this is submitted to God, but, Lord willing, our church sanctuary is going to have a steeple. And a steeple illustrates the perennial problem that believers have in this fallen world. A steeple can be illustrative of the humility of man before God, but it can also be a glaring example of the pride of man. We want the former, but the latter is never far away.
One the one hand, we know how small we are before God. A steeple expresses the finite yearning of creatures for the transcendent, and it points to the only place our salvation can come from—from Heaven above. This is a God-given humility. On the other hand, in the course of building it, we might come to notice that it is taller than those other steeples, and that the design is more fitting. This kind of thing can even reach pathological levels, where we take pride in how much more humbly we yearn for the transcendent than they do.
Pride is an insidious sin, and it is capable of working with any materials. Human pride can glory in having no steeple at all, and we could all worship in a tiny little box calling one another by the names of brother and sister, greeting each other with the phrases like grace and peace, and a holy kiss, sprinkling our conversation with words like yea and verily, with the women vying with each other over who had the plainest bonnet, and only be doing any of it because we thought we were better.
Can a beautiful woman take pride in her makeup? Well, certainly, but pride doesn’t go down the sink as easily as the makeup does. The only thing that deals with the pride of life is the gospel of Jesus Christ, with application of that gospel being made by the Holy Spirit of the Father, who straightens things out where it all begins, which is in the human heart.
So what do we want our steeple to mean? Among other things, we want it to be a summons to the prideful. We want it tall so that the purblind can see it. This is the place where we all come to die. So let the stones cry out.
We are physical creatures, living in a physical world. At the same time, God has put eternity in our hearts, which means that we are enabled to look beyond what is merely physical. Because we are material creatures, God always works with us through means. Because we are spiritual creatures with an immaterial soul that is not bound by matter, we are enabled to know what those means mean.
Those who look to the means alone, stopping there, are superstitious and blind. They think Jesus is the bread and wine. They think salvation is the sinner’s prayer. They think that God dwells in houses made with human hands.
Those who look to the meaning alone, bypassing the means that God has established in the world, are gnostics and rationalists. They are too spiritual to be confined to physical things. They think that Jesus does nothing in and through the bread and wine. They think salvation means looking down with contempt on the sinner’s prayer. They think that God dwells in the bone box on top of their body.
Everyone in the world thinks he understands. That is what it means to think. In order to think, you have to think something. And whatever it is that you think, that is what you think.
So if you are in the grip of an error, you do not understand that error. If you did, you wouldn’t be in error. Who can understand his errors? When Scripture poses this question, it poses a profound question.
Understanding error, and understanding the truth that stands opposite must therefore be a gift of God. Apart from grace, there is no way to comprehend what is happening in the culture around us, in the church at large, in our own congregation, in our own families, or in our own hearts. But when God’s grace is poured out, the people are woven together in likemindedness, and the people have a mind to work.
The task of the church is the evangelization of the world, and to bring that converted world up to maturity in Christ. The task of the local church is to do its part in that global task in its part of the world. Notice how the apostle Paul described his mission. “Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28). If the point of the world is for humanity to grow up into the perfect man, then the point of every part of the world is to grow up into its portion of that perfect man. Global evangelization is therefore the sum total of the faithful labor of local churches. The global community will not be evangelized by the global church—it will be brought to Christ by the ministries of local churches.
And this means that local churches must think of their mission differently. We are not here to gather a tiny portion of the population in order that we might take a small splinter of humanity off to Heaven. No, we want to bring Heaven here. In line with how we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, we want His kingdom to come, not go. We want His will to be done here as it is already done in Heaven.
The task of the church here on the Palouse is therefore birth and growth. We are called to be constantly engaged in the evangelism of unbelievers, and once they have been converted and baptized, we want them to grow up to maturity in Christ. Our task is not that of isolation and containment. Now in order to bring the Palouse to Christ, it should be obvious that we are going to need something that human beings need for everything else that they do—we are going to need buildings. And if we are going to need buildings, it is self-evident that we are going to have to build them. But in the building of them, we must take care that we not become distracted by them. They are a resource to be used and expended in fulfillment of the mission—birth and growth. So let the stones cry out.
When Nehemiah heard about the desolate state of the ruined city of Jerusalem, he was greatly humbled, and he cried out to the Lord in true confession of sin. “We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.” (Neh. 1:7). This was the man who was to rebuild that city, and so he began by clearing the spiritual ground—he began with confession of sin.
James tells us that if we sin at just one point of the law, we are guilty of offending against all of it. This is because the law is simply a description of what the triune personal God is like, and so an offense against Him at this point or at that point is still, at the end of the day, an offense against Him. If a man were to strike another man, whether the blow falls on his right cheek or his left, the blow has still fallen on the man.
Now the point of our sanctification is to become like God. That is where we are going. If we forget this, as professing Christians, what happens is that we find ourselves keeping a bunch of detached rules, and forgetting what the person behind all the rules is actually like. What He is like is love, kindness, overflow, and everlasting generosity. The detached rules may be fine in themselves, but when we do this they are radically out of context. By keeping just some of the rules we got from God, we do it in such a way as to sin against God.
When we seek to accumulate enough money to build the sanctuary we are pursuing, we need to accumulate it through generosity, not through hoarding. A church is a conduit for ministry, and it is—in line with the character of God—a replicating ministry. This means that we must be constantly putting seed in the ground. “Now he that ministereth seed to the sower both minister bread for your food, and multiply your seed sown, and increase the fruits of your righteousness;) Being enriched in every thing to all bountifulness, which causeth through us thanksgiving to God” (2 Cor. 9:10–11). That is what we are after.
A church building is a staging area, designed for God’s people to use in fulfilling the mission. The mission is the evangelization of the world—for the universal church—and the evangelization of our locale, for the local church. As a staging area, we have to be able to see past it. Marshaling and assembling the troops is not the same thing as sending them out to battle.
This means that if we build our building, and within a year or so it is not big enough to contain us all, that is not a sign of poor planning. It is a sign to us that we are beginning to accomplish the mission. Our goal should not be to have a sanctuary big enough to hold us all, so that we might then settle into our long, slow glide plane into cultural irrelevance.