Church Beyond Buildings

One of the things we’re learning during COVID-19 is that many in our communities are longing for “thirdspaces.”

Thirdspace is a term used by sociologists to describe where we spend time when we’re not at home (“first” space) or at work (“second” space). Thirdspaces can be coffee shops, pubs, parks, gyms, arenas, clubs, barbershops, and even churches.

Spaces such as these are crucial to thriving communities. They play an important role in building fellowship because they break down social siloes and draw people together from across age groups. In thirdspaces, we feel inspired to ask questions, dream, hope, play, laugh, give, rejoice, serve, and be honest. They are places where broken hearts are mended and where we learn to live for causes beyond ourselves.

During a global pandemic, most thirdspaces are off limits. A real sense of loss comes from not being able to access thirdspaces, especially when that thirdspace is the church. However, the crisis we face is not merely the function of a global pandemic.

For the past century, Christians in America have come to increasingly equate the church with a concrete, physical structure. The church as body has become the church as building. When the Sunday School and Bible study movement boomed in the early 20th century, church buildings rapidly expanded in order to create a type of thirdspace for education and fellowship. But as the popularity of these forms of ministry declined in recent years, many local congregations have found themselves burdened by massive buildings that soak up the budget even as they remain largely unused.

The problem is not with our inability to fill up our buildings; rather, the problem is with how we have come to think about what a church is and what a church does.

Many pastoral leaders have based their vision of the church on the theology of the temple. In biblical terms, the temple was seen as the locus of God’s presence. It exerted a centripetal force over all of Israel, drawing people to a specific, centralized location for worship and sacrifice. Once established under Solomon, massive amounts of resources (tithes), personnel (priests), and laws (rituals) were required to maintain and regulate its operation.

In the Scriptures, temple theology is in tension with tabernacle theology. The tabernacle (sometimes translated as sanctuary) refers to a moveable tent-like structure that housed the ark of the covenant prior to the construction of the temple. While it, like the temple, was the center of Israel’s spiritual life, unlike the temple, the tabernacle exerted a centrifugal force. The tent went where Israel went – it symbolized the mobile presence of God with the people.

While aspects of the temple can be celebrated, the weight of the biblical witness affirms tabernacle theology. In fact, when David first presents his temple-building plan to the prophet Nathan, God rejects the idea outright, claiming to be a tabernacle-dwelling God, not a temple-dwelling God (2 Sam 7:1-7). A similar theme is echoed much later in the Gospel of John where we learn that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). The verb translated as “lived” is not the normal Greek verb for live, zaō, but rather the verb, skānoō. The latter is the Greek equivalent of the verb in Hebrew that means to tent and it’s the root of the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan.

What would it mean to reimagine the church today from the view of tabernacle theology rather than temple theology?

I think we would shift our focus from how to get people to church to how we can get church to where people are already gathering. For instance:

  • What if we focused less on the church as a thirdspace and more on ways we can manifest God’s love in other thirdspaces?
  • What if we started thinking about how we can make our churches as nimble and moveable as possible?
  • What if we found ways of converting unused square footage in our buildings into thirdspaces for those in our communities?
  • What if we relocated our programs and offerings to thirdspaces where those we minister to already gather?
  • What if we took our educational offerings on the road and out into coffee shops, pubs, parks, libraries, and so forth?
  • What if we started asking “When is God present” and not just “Where is God present”?

Making this shift wouldn’t signal the end of church buildings. But it would invite us to turn our thinking about church buildings, and perhaps thirdspaces, inside out.

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