… and our buildings shape us…

I was pondering church architecture today, partly as I observed the fairly bland ‘multi-purpose’ nature of all newer buildings and partly as I read Petersen’s ‘memoir, The Pastor’ and reflected on the way he and his congregation planned together the shape and form of their new church building.

Petersen and his crew saw their building as an extension of their identity and as a definite theological statement. Hence their building was less of a ‘community centre’ and more of a reflection of their identity in Christ. The building needed to be shaped by them rather than shaping them. After a less than inspiring meeting with an architect who offered them ‘colonial,, ‘neo-gothic’ or ‘contemporary’, they decided to work at developing their own design and what emerged was a building that was uniquely them and where they fitted perfectly. (The chapter is called Bezalel if you want to read it.)

I have given buildings very little thought in recent years and seen them as purely utilitarian. I have abhorred the thought of churches spending millions on a new worship centre because its ‘nicer to have our own stuff’. But Petersen has challenged me to consider the role of the building in spiritual formation.

The trend in recent years in church buildings has been away from dedicated religious buildings with steeples and stain glass windows etc, back towards ‘shared use facilities’ that the local community can use also. This isn’t a bad idea per se and it emanates from both a missional impulse (to ‘bless’ the community) and a desire to ‘demystify’ our spaces and make them more accessible to the average punter. That said I’m not sure if our ‘demystifying’ has been such a good idea as I can’t help but feel that when people turn up to a church they want it to feel like a ‘church’ and if there is nothing ‘spiritual’ then maybe we have shot ourselves in the foot.

Today I was pondering how our buildings and gathering spaces influence our communal identity and then our behaviour. ie how do we express our identity as a church as a result of being in these spaces?

By and large most newer church buildings (while ‘multi-purpose’ in intent) are still auditoriums that facilitate a concert type experience. There may be out-buildings (halls/meeting rooms etc) that the community can use, but the actual ‘worship auditorium’ is still a stage / audience scenario. If Petersen is correct – that our buildings make a theological statement – then this has to sit uneasily with us – no matter how we explain it away… When church becomes a concert / motivational talk to attend and consume we are always going to struggle to move into discipleship mode.

Its not that the older architecture got it right either. Enter any of those cathedrals and there was a clear clergy/laity divide at work, and a very Old Testament flavour to the undergirding theology. They were ‘holy’ places with sections where only the qualified could access. Hence the idea of ‘reverence’ was an issue we used to hear talked about in thee buildings. (‘Cathedral God’ doesn’t like noise on a Sunday morning)

Then there are those of us who meet in schools, community centres or hired spaces – and use dual purpose auditoriums. One day its a music classroom and the next its a space for worship.  One day its got the Reiki crew meeting in it, the next the Baptist church. Its a shell, where the contents change day to day. What impact does that have on the people meeting there?

We are one of those churches. The room we use also seems to be the place where stuff gets put when you run out of room elsewhere, so it is often cluttered and uninviting. I’m still wondering what kind of a theological statement it makes, but I can’t help but feeling it is less than conducive to encountering God. Our building seems to say ‘it doesn’t matter where we meet – but that we meet’. That’s somewhat true… but I think ‘where‘ does matter. I feel like the tone of the space influences our experiences and needs consideration. If I had my choice I would meet in a different space to the one we currently have because the ambience is too utilitarian and non-descript. We are neither a cathedral or a concert. We are beige and bland and I sense that affects our worship.

A common practice in church buildings recently has been to do a factory refurb. Buy a warehouse in an industrial area and deck it out as a space to gather. I’m not a big fan of this either. The economics may work, but it still feels odd to have a worship space wedged between the  carpet store and boat mechanic. These buildings are also somewhat removed from the communities of people who inhabit them. That may not be a big deal, but I kinda like the ‘corner deli’ church a bit more than the factory one. I’m sure it can work, but I imagine if given a choice those who have bought factories would far rather be in the middle of a suburb.

If we want to get a bit more back to basics then we could meet in homes around a meal a bit like those first Christians before Constantine came along with his government grants and ‘lotteries money’ to help us build our ‘sanctuaries’ (there’s an interesting word…) The theology of the house type space sits well with me, even if the practicalities can bring it unstuck. Houses limit the numbers of those who could attend – which can be a good thing… Personally I think optimal church size is under 50 – a ‘household’. However houses are very private spaces and may not feel accessible to all – or we may prefer some folks didn’t have access to our homes. Therein is a great wrestle for what it means to be ‘the church’. ‘Hospitality’ is nice idea, but a more difficult reality.

Theologically I sit most comfortably in the house space – because my primary imagination of church is as family. Over the years our Christian culture has so morphed this original biblical idea that now we call ourselves a family but don’t operate as much like one as we might like to think. Larger buildings and gatherings make ‘hiding’ possible, both for those who don’t wish to be seen and for those who don’t wish to ‘get involved’, which seems very ‘unfamily’like

I don’t have a simple solution as everything is a compromise to some degree, but I do love Petersen’s idea of forming our buildings to reflect our theological identity and if I ever was forced to lead a church on a building project then I’d be doing this kind of thinking first and the economics and practicalities second.

What are your reflections on how the building in which you meet has either assisted or detracted from your own spiritual formation?

When I Walk










Back on Jan 1 I made a spur of the moment decision to begin a daily Instargram photolog of our local beaches. I was inspired by the Instagram page of an Irish guy in a little town called Ballybunnion who I stumbled on late one night when I was surfing the web. I began watching his town, his beaches and environment and thought it might be interesting to do something similar. So the project is less an exercise in funky photography than it is in observation of local geography.

So far I’ve really enjoyed it, but moreso I’ve enjoyed the spin offs that have come from it.

Generally I am at the beach twice or 3 times a day and that alone is good for the soul.I never come back from the beach feeling like I have wasted my time… Even if I’m running late I make a practice of leaving the suburb via the beach route. It adds 2 minutes to my travel, but it also adds joy to my day.

I’ve picked up some knowledge around photography – all pretty basic and rudimentary – but still nice to learn something new. (There’s only so much you can do on an iPhone!)

But the real value has been in simply being present in the same places and spaces often and regularly bumping into the same people. I’ve met an old school student, numerous local surfers, some ‘sunset regulars’, other dog walkers and a whole swathe of other people who live locally. A few evenings we have finished up having a cup of tea with neighbours as we have ambled back home. I realised a couple of weeks back that this is more like the live I hope to live.

None of it was planned, but it simply happened as I was present and had the time to stop. The simple fact is that the more I am out there the more I meet people, make connections and become a part of the community. Its pretty obvious hey?… One evening as I walked the beach on dusk I took photos of a local surfer, we finished up chatting for a while after in the carpark, connecting on Instagram and I imagine we will see each other in the surf one day again soon.

For those of who embrace the missionary calling, the simple act of turning up is foundational. From there things can take their own course, but if we aren’t present in our communities then we definitely won’t be making the kind of connections we hope for.

Where the Magic Happens

Back when I used to play basketball regularly I would go thru patches of good form and bad form. There would be 5 or 6 weeks in a row where it felt like you ‘couldn’t miss’ – every shot you put up felt like it was going in and often it did.

Then there were those weeks where you felt ‘out of form’, where the ball left your hand and you fully expected to hear a clang rather than a swoosh. Those weeks could go on and on and they were painful.

What was odd was that there wasn’t any way of determining when you’d be on form or off. It wasn’t that you ever stopped being a good basketballer, but simply that some days what you did worked and other days not so much.

I find the same happens with communication in a church setting, but with one distinct and curious difference.

RIght now I’d say I’m in a bit of a ‘form slump’ – putting teaching together has been really hard work whereas often it just flows – the creative ideas aren’t sparking and I’m just having to give it the best I’ve got – to hang in until things change. I can’t pick a specific cause or reason. Its just how it is. In this space I’m struggling to find the inspiration I want and the thought processes are clunking and grinding rather than meshing smoothly.

In the sporting arena that translates to poorer performance – games lost – and stats down. But curiously in the spiritual arena its often when the Spirit does his best work – when I feel like I’m not performing – when my own game is lacking.

I’ve been doing it long enough to know that what I think is my best work – the days when I have ‘belted it out of the park’ (as preachers say…) may not actually be the stuff that the spirit uses, but what I consider awkward and clunky and maybe even ho hum will often touch people’s hearts in unexpected ways.

So I’ve learnt not to worry – not to panic – but rather to wonder ‘how will God use this offering?…’ Because that’s what it is – an offering of the best I’ve got  – 5 loaves and 2 fish which he can do something pretty cool with.

In my early days of ministry I would have happily ‘subbed out’ during these periods and let someone else take the floor, but these days (while I still don’t enjoy periods of ‘creative constipation’) I actually find myself turning up expectant and curious as to what God will do with the best I’ve got to give.

And funnily enough, right this moment, just as I was about to hit ‘post’ a message came in from someone who found this morning’s message helpful…

Ha… Makes me smile…

Sunday 9.30

Tomorrow in my teaching at QBC I want to ask people to consider the idea of our church community going purely online and digital – no weekly meetings – in fact no meetings ever… sermons uploaded, music streamed, facebook groups for interaction and all giving done online. No human contact needed and yet people still receive the input they seek. We could have private messaging for counselling and all the other functions would be digitised too.

Much more efficient I feel.

No running late, no crying kids, no set up or pack up, no lame coffee, no strange people to have interact with after the gathering.

I think I’m onto something. If efficiency was the goal then this would be one route. Heck we wouldn’t even stream our own sermons, we could just provide links to the best podcasts in the world and people could listen to their heart’s content.

There are plenty already choosing this as their experience of ‘church’.

The common theme in those who do so is that of convenience and accessibility for people with busy lives. In many ways church is inconvenient – it interferes with your weekend. You could be at the beach… and it happens every week… What else do you do every week? (Maybe we need a church season? At least netball ends in September for 6 months!)

Church is clunky – anyone can come – where else in society do you have kindy to aged care in the one room all trying to relate to one another? That can be beautiful, but often it can also be difficult…

It is repetitive – we do the same stuff every week – and some of us have been doing it for a very long time.

Church could be a lot more efficient – but efficiency was never the goal… Genuine human interaction is rarely efficient.

My conviction as I read the New testament is that the church must be a physical community of people who follow Jesus together and who bump up against one another in the flesh. There is something about the physical expression of the church that will never be replaced by an online expression or a detached form of digital engagement.

And it’s not just a kindle v real books debate. It’s not about preference for the way information is delivered. Its about an understanding of what actually constitutes a Christian community and its about realising that once we enter the family of God we no longer exist purely as individuals – we are part of a community even if that grates on us – even if we would rather retain our autonomy.

Every time I consider church as I read about it in the New testament and then lay it alongside church as we experience it here in 21st C western culture I can’t help but ponder the vast difference when it comes to an understanding of community.

I’ve just been gearing up for some teaching in the book of Colossians – nothing overly sexy in that – but even just reading the letter I am reminded again that this is a letter to a group of people – not to one, yet so often when we read it our default mode of interpretation is to ask ‘what is this saying to me?’

I wonder what would happen if we took time to read scripture together and asked ‘what is this saying to us?’ That’s a rather unwieldy method for a Sunday morning (and therein lies another question of methodology – should we meet as we do?) however it could be something small clumps of people could do.

If the church is the visible expression of God’s triune community and a tangible form of his kingdom in the world then it requires something more of us than weekly attendance at an event. (And more than a mid-week Bible study etc etc)

Because if the ultimate goal is for people to be formed into the likeness of Christ – to become mature – then that will never happen if ‘do church’ in front of our laptop while sipping a glass of red and keeping an eye on the football in the background.

One of the things I have said repeatedly over the last 10 years is that in the kingdom of God ‘we’ always takes precedence over ‘me’. Who “we are is more important than who I am. I believe it but I still find it hard to grasp it let alone live it.

You don’t lose your identity in that, but rather your identity is shaped and formed differently within Christian community.

Yet that is so difficult for us to see. Even as I write it I feel the implications and want to call it unreasonable, impractical and maybe even silliness.

One of the themes of this letter is Christian maturity and the fact that you cannot reach maturity on your own. In our individualised world that probably sounds bizarre – disturbing – maybe even controlling. But that’s because we are taught so consistently to think individually rather than communally.

I feel like I have a glimpse of what Jesus intended when he created the church, but my default settings are set so incredibly high to ‘individualism’ and autonomy that I can’t fully imagine how this could work itself out practically and maybe then if I’d still want to be part of it. Sounds radically different, wonderfully inviting yet also fraught with complications and inevitable mess.

Maybe we should just stick to Sunday at 9.30am?