Most people don’t need to be told that a church is not primarily the building where people meet for worship and other communal activities. The church, of course, is the people—the living stones (1 Pt. 2.4), which together make a “spiritual house.” The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, a flesh and blood community indwelt by the welcoming presence of Christ.
However, while acknowledging the flesh and blood nature of the church, I don’t think we should to quickly discount the importance of physical space. Christianity is an incarnate religion, and physical stuff matters. I have learned this truth yet again in the aftermath of St. Timothy’s recent building campaign. The physical space at St. Timothy’s has never been extravagant, luxurious space. I once described St. Timothy’s as a “bed and breakfast,” not the Ritz. Our space should be welcoming and comfortable—a physical expression of our hospitality. Unfortunately, until it was refurbished in our recent campaign, various parts of our building had become less than hospitable. Our Parish Hall had become terribly rundown and anything but a welcoming presence. The same was true for our water logged lower level; nothing like the smell of mold to say “Welcome!” The same could also be said about potholes in the parking lot, cracks in the sidewalk, and deferred maintenance on the general wear and tear of the building.
The welcoming presence of Christ at St. Timothy's—or any other church for that matter—comes primarily from the living stones who make up the church. However, the inanimate stones which make up the building are also part of Christ's welcoming presence as well. An ongoing challenge for a church is how to allocate its resources to support the ongoing mission of the church embodied in its people while at the same time being good stewards of its facilities. Vestries have to grapple with these issues every year in preparing a budget. How much do we allocate to maintain the facility versus how much do allocate to support Christ’s ministry of reconciliation and hope in our neighborhood?
Every Vestry has to make tough decisions about the allocation of resources, but I wonder if one place to begin these challenging conversations is with the realization that money given to maintain the facility and money given to support ministries are both about the mission of the church. The best example of this I know came from our building project in the late ‘90s. The addition of our Gathering Space outside of our worship space transformed the communal experience on Sunday morning. Prior to building that space, it was hard to connect with people before and after worship. The first Sunday we used the new space everything changed. Gatherings before and after worship became a time when old relationships were renewed and strangers discovered new friends. More recently, the refurbishment of our Parish Hall has made that space a vehicle of Christ’s reconciling ministry. We have had more festive gatherings in that space in the last year than during the three prior decades combined. The same is true for a refurbished room on our lower level. It has become the space where everyone wants to meet. It is spacious, comfortable and welcoming.
The hospitality of God is made flesh in God’s people, but it is also made concrete in bricks and mortar. May every aspect of the church’s life embody the welcoming presence of Christ.