Have you ever experienced the doors of your church building opening and closing for the last time? Maybe too many people moved away. Perhaps spiritual truths weren’t being spoken. Maybe your building was too big for the congregation to support financially. Maybe something happened that caused a split in the church.
I’ve been there, done that. Maybe some of you have, too.
That happened to the first church I remember attending when I was very young. When you’re little, you don’t remember the why. You just remember the Easter egg hunts with the new twirly dress your mom made. Or dressing like a scarecrow for the fall festivals, the cake walk, and bobbing for apples.
It was where I remember watching a “Jonah and the Whale” puppet show. My parents had worked tirelessly on a papier-mâché whale made from chicken wire and strips of newspaper dipped in glue and painted to look like the fish we all imagined in the Bible story. That giant fish was wonderful, and it made that story come to life for me.
It was also the place where I experienced my first foot-washing service. While I was only six or seven years old at the time, it impacted the rest of my life! It was life-giving and life-changing.
The church building’s expenses had become too much for the congregation to maintain, so the decision was made to sell the building. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, nor did I need to. I just knew we weren’t going to that church building anymore and I didn’t know why.
But church was a part of my family and it was a part of my life. I never knew it any other way.
Fast forward ten years. Our family had moved to another state. I grew up with a wonderful, spirit-led and serving youth group, graduated high school, and was now in college. One summer Sunday, I realized that Satan was doing a pretty good job tearing apart my church family. That church had also been life-giving and life-changing to me. But it was clear those doors, too, would soon be closing. And they did, but I still loved the people and missed that family.
Throughout college, I admit, I did the dance called “church hop.” I couldn’t find a church in the area that was like my home church, so I wasn’t satisfied. Allow me to put the emphasis on I, because, looking back, that’s what it boiled down to. I had made church about me and how it would best suit me. I wanted the worship music and the digging into scripture, the handshake and the smile at the door. While I wanted people to know my name and who I was, I didn’t do my part. Let’s be real: I didn’t want to commit to the flawed person I was, or to serve a Holy God for the sake of the church.
I’m not sure what I struggled with more during that season, the fact that I was contradicting what I had grown up loving and being a part of my whole life, or that I wanted it to be like my church back home, and it wasn’t. Either way, they were lousy excuses. Let’s call them what they were.
But by grace, God navigated me through that season by means of something I never intended…he tends to work that way.
My dissertation topic was over Church Interior Design. The fancy, academic title for the paper was, “Church Interior Aesthetics: Do the interior aesthetics of a worship environment affect the retention of the post-modern generation?” According to my findings, the answer is yes, but you can’t write the word “YES” for 100+ pages. But, when you spend more than two years of your life on a paper, you’d better love your subject matter, because you will eat, breathe, and sleep your topic. Thankfully, the experience taught me a lot.
In order to explore the topic efficiently, I read close to fifteen books, countless scholarly articles, attended upwards of thirty churches in the area, and others when I was out of town. They were all different sizes, “flavors”, instruments, a capella, traditional and contemporary worship (everything in between), longitudinal seating plans (two sides with a center aisle), circular, and half-round layouts, warehouses, 120+ year old buildings, brand new facilities, stained glass, dark holes, casual, suits, dancing, “high church”… You name it, I probably saw it.
Truthfully, in the beginning of my research, I was so busy observing and taking notes that I wasn’t truly participating in the service. I was also judging it based on my own preference. And yes, you are going to have those, but my own preferences became a distraction and a stumbling block. I certainly wasn’t worshiping in spirit and in truth.
As my visits continued, God began to do what God does–he softened my heart. I began to see beyond the research and to watch God move in people’s lives! I watched God answer prayer, and I saw people give of themselves to serve others. While visiting “other” churches, I encountered his presence. I experienced the warmth of a handshake; the depth and reverence of the old hymns and of contemporary worship songs; the intricate beauty of stained glass and the peace of darker spaces with candle light and hands lifted high.
I was watching Matthew 18:20 play out: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among you.”
And I John 3:1: “What kind of love the Father has given to us–that we should be called children of God, and so we are!”
Maybe more importantly for me, God was stirring up John 4:24 in my heart: “God is spirit, and those who worship him MUST worship him in spirit and in truth” (emphasis mine).
It doesn’t say, “…and those who worship him must worship him with your own preferences in mind, judging the guy next to you, or the bad lighting. And make sure you are obvious about glaring at the guy who is slow to change the slides during the worship songs…”
I’m thankful to have experienced that not only for my own heart’s sake, but for the sake of how I interact with other people now in their faith journey! Oswald Chambers once wrote:
“Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you!”
Praise be to God!!
Fast forward eight more years. My church family is also closing the doors in its current location. That building holds over forty years of memories. Children’s church and youth groups. Marriages, births, and funerals. Times of tears and rejoicing. People giving their life to Christ and experiencing the joys and trials of salvation. LIFE!
For most, the congregation is excited about the new things God is going to do in the future. For others, it has been a time of angst, fear, confusion, and sadness because of the connection to that location. And both of those things should be respected: being a part of the excitement of the unknown and being empathetic towards change and the unknown.
Last night, we had a rehearsal for one last big Worship Night in this building. People from over the decades will come back into town to be reminded and encouraged of what God has done and will continue to do through the church. As people were arriving, a woman I don’t know well asked me, “So, how are you doing with all of this? Are you struggling with emotional attachment to this building?”
“No, I’m more attached to the people and the purpose!” And I meant it.
I’m thankful that I can honestly say that now. People around the world are potentially or literally surrendering everything–their belongings, their families, even their lives–in order to be a Christian and worship with others. But they know He’s worth it! It’s not about a building.
In Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love, he talks about how his wife and kids felt led to minister to China for a time. In their underground worship gatherings, he said:
“The most surprising part of our time together was when they asked me about church in America. They laughed hysterically when I told them that church for Americans tends to focus on buildings and that people will sometimes switch churches based on music, child care, preaching, or disagreements with other believers. I honestly was not trying to be funny. They laughed in disbelief at our church experiences, thinking it was ridiculous that we would call this Christianity.”
I wish this wasn’t true for churches worldwide, let alone the States. Unfortunately it is, because I’ve witnessed it. And it breaks my heart, no matter the language. But I believe in a God who created us to worship him in spirit and in truth, even if we struggle with that sometimes. I believe in his grace, his mercy, and his forgiveness, and I believe in his redemption!
God may be calling you to something new. He may be asking you to close the doors on something–for reasons you may or may not understand. Your faith may be challenged like crazy right now. But I am praying that God gives you clarity in your season. Not necessarily clarity in the sense that you understand his plan perfectly, but rather clarity of faith and unwavering trust in the God who has called you to his purposes! I pray that you will worship him in spirit and in truth, no matter where he takes you. That you will actively engage in people he puts in your path so you can be the Gospel to them.
So, if a door is closing in your life, please try not to look at it solely as a thing of death. Rather, see the new life that can come through the resurrecting power of Christ. I encourage you to be life-changing and life-giving to someone. Watch God do what he does best: bring glory to himself!
Originally posted: March 2016