I have found myself on more than one occasion meandering through empty halls and empty buildings. When I was in high school, I had a summer job working at a public school that was preparing to open in the fall. I assisted the principal by taking documents from other schools and rewriting them with the information for the new school. I would walk with him among the empty corridors as he listed off notes for me to take. His voice would echo in the emptiness of the school, void of students. Not only did it feel cold and empty, but the school seemed enormous. In just a few months it would be teeming with life, as middle school students filled these empty halls and classrooms with energy and excitement.
A few years later, I was assigned to help open up a brand new flagship store for the company I worked for. This massive building set in an vast empty parking lot, was a blank slate. White walls, white floor tiles, white shelves. It was new, clean, and almost antiseptic feeling. You could smell the fumes of the fresh paint and the cleaners we used to wipe down the surfaces. Voices carried across the building only stopped by the few walls that portioned off the management offices, restroom, and breakroom. In a matter of weeks, this building was filled with color and movement. New employees being trained and prepared for opening day, products filling the shelves, and boxes of employee shirts being distributed brought color and vibrancy to the static white walls. Opening day would unleash a tidal wave of customers ready to undo all of our hard work as they filled their carts with merchandise.
When our second daughter was born, our church was in the midst of a building project. We had outgrown the small chapel on the church grounds and it was time to build a new sanctuary. As a member of the ministry leadership, I had the opportunity to tour the building throughout the process. A brilliant new stage, gorgeous stadium seating, warm inviting colors, and an architecturally beautiful building were just the by-product of the building’s purpose. For years we had broken our body into four services to fit everyone and yet we were still growing. We needed the space. But, even more so, it was the desire of the Pastors to bring the body back into ONE congregation. Spanning four services in a single morning, we found that few people from the first service knew the people from fourth service. We were a church family that could only know one fourth of it’s members. It was time to unite the body. As leadership, we would walk through that building filled with hope.
We hoped that the new children’s ministry rooms would be able to hold all of the babies that were being born into our church. We prayed that the classrooms would serve our study groups well. We talked about new ministry opportunities that the building would allow us to meet. We dreamed about the future of this seventy five year old church, and the new generations that would call it home and family. Our dreams were that of a church so indwelled in our community, that our church would be like a home to the orphan, the widow, the poor, and the stranger. Providing more seats at the table, and doors that welcomed them in to become part of our church family.
I remember lunches on the church lawn after service, fall festivals, Christmas musicals, and Easter egg hunts on the grounds. We offered our old chapel to a local Haitian Church, and occasionally they would invite our church to fellowship meals after their services. Family dinners, Women’s brunches, Men’s breakfasts, recovery groups, youth group nights, Awanas, etc. filled our church calendar. We built a wonderful community that has left a pivotal mark on my mind and heart on what a church should be and should feel like. In fact, when we moved it became the litmus to my heart.
This is what church family is, this is what our hearts long for when we come together and corporately worship. Not a fast food injection of a momentary handshake, quick side hug, or kind words shared at the coffee station. Rather, deep conversations over a dinner table while breaking bread. Laughter and tears shed, as we gathered for studies and fellowship with our family of faith. There is something in our bodies that craves the community of the early church that has been lost as we pop in and out for our quick nibble off the Bread of Life. We show up on Sunday morning, take in the Word, and head home for our football games and midday nap sessions. Quick to rush home versus taking the time to linger and chat. However, there are times were we attempt to linger but are ushered out of the doors as the lights are turned off and the doors locked. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
I’ve witnessed people standing in the heat of the Florida summer sun, talking in the parking lot long after the church doors have been locked. They are having a conversation that should be able to happen in the safe space of the church. Too fragile of a conversation to be moved to the local coffee shop or lunch spot. Instead, when the heat finally overcomes them, they slip into a car and put on the air conditioner to finish out their thoughts. Why is this so? Why have we locked our doors so quickly? Why do we flip over the welcome mat at the front doors, and put up the closed for business signs on our doors?
I’ve watched movies, where in big cities, people would pour into the neighborhood church at all hours. It could be one in the morning, and the doors were open for the wayward and the lost. Welcome. You are safe here. How can we serve you? We don’t tend to our sheep like that anymore. Sure, you can call the Pastor at his home, or someone from the prayer chain… but will they answer? I remember once struggling in the middle the of the night, and I wanted nothing more than to walk into a church and just sit in the sanctuary… in His house. But, the doors were locked. No one was home. Our churches have business hours, you’ll need to make an appointment.
I’ve been told to cancel a small group because enough participants didn’t sign up to make it worth opening up the church. Jesus went out of his way for the one, and we can’t open the doors for the five. I’ve been told that we can’t have “too many” activities on the calendar. What is “too many” activities for a body that craves community, and desires to spend time with one another? I’ve driven by churches that sit empty 4-5 days of the week, and wondered is this how we are supposed to be stewarding the House of the Lord? Are the doors supposed to be locked? We put so much money into huge beautiful buildings that are never used to their fullest capacity, and I admit I wrestle with why.
Should it not be erupting with the squeals and giggles of children? Echoing with the sobs of the broken? Shaking with the songs of those who praise Him? Rooms filled with men and women studying the Scriptures? Testimonies and healing in rooms full of those who are recovering? The hushed murmuring from the prayers of our warriors going to battle on their knees? A building full of life versus desolate, empty halls…