Executive Conference Minister
In recent weeks, the news carried live coverage of the fire that destroyed the 850-year old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Within two days, contributions to rebuild the church topped 1 billion Euros. Clearly this building means a great deal to a lot of people.
From the beginning, places to meet the living God have mattered in the identity and witness of the church. God's idea about the place of meeting was first a tabernacle, a moveable space to accompany people as nomads on the way to the Promised Land. As the people of God became settled in the land, King David imagined a permanent place of meeting--a house of cedar where God could live. God contested the notion that it would even be desirable to God to be confined to a house made by human hands. Eventually a temple was built. The temple was destroyed, the temple was rebuilt, only to fall again. The Temple Mount remains a contested place of meeting to this day.
Mennonites have had their own challenges with understanding the role of the place of meeting. We have tried to be careful to remember that "the church" is people who gather to meet the living God, not a building. It was not an accident that What is this place? is the first hymn in the blue hymnal. It is a profound statement about what we mean by our places of meeting. The relative modesty of our meeting places with generous space for fellowship and study further reinforce the notion that the nature of the church is located in peoplehood.
Even so, place matters when it comes to meeting with God. For new churches, the acquisition of a building is a symbol of legitimacy as a church. In some cases, the maintenance of a pristine building can overshadow the ministry of spiritual formation and witness in the world. Churches that have experienced losses of members due to demographic shifts or declining spiritual vitality find themselves straining under the burden of building maintenance and encroaching decay.
How shall we think about our places of meeting? it is clear that there will not be one answer for every context. All places of meeting are local and therefore unique. Permanence where places of meeting are concerned is not aligned with the theology of the early church that believed that our citizenship is in heaven and we are pilgrims by vocation, people on the way.
This is not to say that churches should divest of facility. But here we have two stories of churches that have done careful discernment about their places of meeting. First Mennonite (MN) and Cedar Falls Mennonite Churches have made bold moves to sell their buildings. Having done so, they are finding new opportunities to renew and reframe the ministry, identity and witness of their churches. Other churches, such as Bethesda Mennonite, have adapted the worship space to be a more intimate, authentic expression of their community as it is today. Still other churches, like Kalona Mennonite, have renewed Christian education spaces to reflect the value of their commitment to the children who are formed in the faith in that place of meeting. nine of our churches gather in the meeting places of other congregations. The continual reminder of their own "guest" status fosters a spirit of hospitality to those who are seeking a spiritual home where they can meet the living God. Christ Community Church gathers in a synagogue. Recent experiences of shootings at synagogues in other parts of the country have meant that this congregation thinks about what happens if one's place of meeting is a target for violence. Still other congregations are very much in the process of discerning whether it is best to move into home settings.
Clearly the question is not buildings or no buildings. The question is, who are we as God's people and how does our space of meeting reflect and support our commitments, our values and our hopes as the people of God in this place where we live and move and have our being?