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Calvary Grace is Moving, and What Facilities Mean for a Church

Calvary Grace Church is moving! Our time at the Alexandra Centre is coming to an end. This past week, we signed an agreement that, as of June 1, 2012, will allow us to use the facilities belonging to St. John Lutheran Church in the community of Bridgeland, just north of the Bow River outside the downtown core. This will involve a slight service time change, as our main service moves to 11:30 AM and Sunday School to 10:30.

Our thanks to the congregation and leadership of St. John, which have been most accommodating, even to the point of moving their own service earlier to allow us a minimal disruption to our own Sunday schedule. Again, that's as of June 1; for the next few weeks we remain at Alexandra.

As we prepare, for the first time in our existence, to move into a purpose-built church facility, it’s probably wise to reflect on the place of a building in the life of a congregation. Now, it’s often pointed out that “the church is not a building,” and it’s absolutely true. The church is the body of Jesus Christ, a body built not of actual but of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). The church, as Christ’s body, can be compared in some ways to the temple of old, as both are a place where the people of God come to worship and encounter the Lord. Yet even that similarity underlines the fact that a building cannot constitute the church. After all, even the temple theme and motif in the Bible was not ultimate, but rather a “type” that foreshadows a greater reality. That reality is seen in the fact that John describes the living physical body of Jesus Christ as a temple (John 2:19-21). So both church and temple are in a certain way the “body of Christ.” The true and ultimate Temple is not a building of stone and mortar but is actually Jesus himself (Revelation 21:22). So, too, then, the church cannot be conceived of as a physical structure, but as a living (and physical) body of redeemed sinners joined to Christ, in Christ, and in whom the Spirit of Christ dwells.

That’s not to deny that the church makes use of facilities. Even in the New Testament we see various buildings appropriated for church services and activities. Private homes were used for the disciples even before the New Covenant church was inaugurated at Pentecost by the giving of the Spirit, as the disciples of Christ were in prayer awaiting the Spirit in a house when he arrived (Acts 2:2). When Peter was imprisoned by the Jews and miraculously released, he found the church gathered in prayer for him at the house of Mary, the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12). When the Thessalonian Jews wanted to crush the young church and seize Paul and his party, they attacked the house of the Christian man Jason (Acts 17:5). Paul’s greetings in his letters tell us that Prisca and Aquila provided their house for a regular meeting place for their church (Romans 16:3-5; 1 Corinthians 16:9) as did Nympha in the region of Colossae (Colossians 4:15) and Philemon (Philemon 1-3).

Church activities were not confined to one particular house, either. The apostles preached and taught “from house to house” (Acts 5:42); the fact that preaching is specifically mentioned means that these were gatherings of (at least parts of) the congregation in these houses and not merely pastoral visits. Similarly, Paul reminded the Ephesian elders of his “ministry of tears” to them (and those in their charge) by declaring he taught them “in public and from house to house” (Acts 20:20). It’s noteworthy that Saul’s persecution of the church also went into “house after house,” presumably because he went where the believers were meeting (Acts 8:3). And Paul’s warning that idle women will be busybodies “going about from house to house” may well be a warning about the way that discord and disunity can spread through the life of a congregation in its gatherings.

Yet this shouldn’t be read as a prescription for “house churches,” either. The church was by no means restricted to houses. Rather, the leadership of the church in the New Testament made use of opportunities to use more public spaces for preaching and teaching. The fact that “three thousand souls” were saved as a result of Peter’s preaching at Pentecost tells us that, while the events of the day may have begun in a private home (Acts 2:2), at some point (probably during the proclamation in tongues described in Acts 2:4) the disciples had moved into a very large public space that could accommodate such a “multitude” (Acts 2:6). What space was that? Almost certainly the temple courts, as Luke makes clear just a few verses later that the new congregation were “attending the temple together” as well as breaking bread in homes (Acts 2:46). Acts 3 describes not only a healing on the temple grounds but a sermon delivered in Solomon’s Portico, an area of the temple courts. This location seems to have become, for a time, the regular meeting place for the Jerusalem church (Acts 5:12). Indeed, Luke stresses that the Jerusalem church met “every day” not only from “house to house” but in the temple (Acts 5:42).

Paul, for his part, also made use of public space. An offhand comment by Luke in the account of Paul’s visit to Philippi strongly suggests that the church met in a public place for prayer. In Acts 16:15, Lydia prevails upon Paul, Silas and Luke to stay in her house, and later in the same chapter Luke says Paul went to visit Lydia and that having done so, “they had seen the brothers” (Acts 16:40), implying that Lydia’s house was a regular gathering place for the church. However, immediately after saying Paul went to Lydia’s house, Luke describes their party “going to the place of prayer” (Acts 16:16). That was almost certainly the riverside where Paul first met Lydia (Acts 16:13). They simply kept meeting there after their conversion. Why not use Lydia’s house for prayer? Perhaps it wasn’t large enough for a gathering of the whole church; perhaps Lydia’s house was inappropriate for prayer for some reason.

Regardless, the churches Paul led seem to have made a distinction, as Paul did in Acts 20:20, between private meetings of believers “from house to house” (probably for discipleship and training) and public gatherings for prayer and proclamation. It was for such a public ministry that Paul, when in Ephesus, used the “hall of Tyrannus,” “reasoning daily” for a period of two years (Acts 2:9-10).

This wouldn’t have been a hard and fast New Testament distinction, though, because as we already saw such public proclamation took place in houses too (Acts 5:42). The early church’s attitude towards meeting space seems to have been marked by flexibility and wisdom, rather than any ideological commitment to a particular meeting model. The early church used houses, riverbanks, temple courts, and public halls for church purposes. God, in his providence, made it possible for the young church of the New Testament to have access to various facilities for proclamation, prayer, and private instruction. The fact that Paul distinguished between public ministry (probably thinking of Tyrannus’ hall) and “house to house” ministry probably tells us that the church was intentional in doing certain things in certain spaces, based on the advantages of each kind of space. Homes have advantages over public buildings: their small size and relative comfort encourages trust and intimacy and fellowship. Public spaces have advantages over homes: they can fit larger groups and so encourage congregational unity, and allow the congregation a public platform for its message.

Flexibility, wisdom, and a willingness to adapt to what the Lord has provided marked the life of the early church. And that should draw our attention as we prepare to move into dedicated and “designed” church space.

The ministry of the church has never depended upon whether particular kinds of buildings are available. Preaching can happen in a temple court or in a house. Prayer can take place on a riverbank. Now, it’s not wrong to use space. It’s not wrong to pay for space, either; I have little doubt that Paul and the congregation would have rented Tyrannus’ hall, seeing as Luke never says Tyrannus (if he was the owner rather than just a namesake) was a believer. And the example of the New Testament encourages us to make full use of whatever space fits the church’s purpose. But the mission of the church is not in any way tied to or dependent on a building.

And that’s the warning we need to heed as we, for the first time, obtain full-time access to centralized and public meeting space. For all our words about the church not being a building, it will be far too easy to let that building dominate our thinking. We may, if we are not careful, lose the flexibility that God has granted our fellowship up until now. As an example, we’ve held a few outdoor services, and as we stand, at this moment, we wouldn’t blink if it became necessary to do so again. We’re used to it. But I could see a day when such things are only a distant memory and the prospect of such a service becomes a daunting or even terrifying thing to a too-comfortable congregation, a day when we might rather turn down ministry opportunities because they might get us out of our place of comfort. We can’t lose our flexibility, or start to think that, just because our new facility is designed for church activities, it is therefore the best or even only place for the various activities of the church.

It’s probably good that, at this stage in our life as a church, this building will not be ours and that we will remain tenants. Many churches experience great frustration over facility matters, whether it is disputes over décor or restlessness over renovations or battles over building campaigns. The maintenance and care of a building, and the expense of its upkeep, can begin to dominate the budget and life of a church. That’s not to say that owning a building is a bad thing, and God willing one day we may have that opportunity. But until then, it would be a good thing for us to continue to make the real mission of the church—making disciples according to the Great Commission—such a focus and such a habit, that when that day comes, even the responsibilities of owning a building cannot knock us off track or distract from our mission.

So we thank God for his faithfulness to us in providing such a wonderful space for our use. And we pray that God will guard our hearts and minds, reminding us that the building is but a tool for the mission of the church and that this mission does not depend on it in any way.