On Sunday our South Bank campus will start the process of settling into our third home in four years; we’re taking residence in the afternoons (4pm) in the home of another church in West End – LifePlace.
Since moving out of home as a 19 year old (15 years ago), I’ve lived in seven houses, four of those have been in Brisbane in the last eight years (we moved four times in the first four years we here). We’re now living in a house that we hope to live in for this season of our lives (on the best street in Brisbane). It feels like home. Finally.
What is home? What makes a place a home?
As a church we’re moving into this new place – perhaps a ‘new home’ even – while working our way through our series A Home In The Mess, which has me thinking about our family home and how we use it, but also about our church home and what space means.
What is home? And what is a church building?
The nature of being a church plant in the inner city of Brisbane means we’re unlikely to have our own home in the short term, and the last three years have meant we’ve been meeting in borrowed places on what feels like borrowed time. Our strategy as a denomination (and at Creek Road) has, it seems, been to sell up empty buildings – but it’s not just us, West End has quite a few ex-church buildings that have been turned into commercial spaces (one is even being leased back by another church). To be fair, some of the wrong thinking about space or place means our denomination has been lumped with some pretty awkward and unpractical buildings in weird locations that aren’t much good for anything at all…
One of the challenges facing churches who don’t own their own homes in this current Australian climate is figuring out who else will host us – the Brisbane City Council has a blanket ban on ‘worship activities’ happening in spaces they own, and it’s conceivable that government owned schools and spaces will increasingly be off limits to people who proclaim messages they find disagreeable. There are plenty of churches around Australia facing homelessness – maybe it’s time for our church institutions to start to think differently about the role of places and spaces in how we do church? About, for example, how habitats and habits relate.
One of the limits we’ve hit in our first four years of life in West End is only having our own space once a week – and even then being guests – this means we’re always experiencing the hospitality of others in the inner city, and not really in a position to offer it (except as we welcome people in to the ‘sacred’ time of our Sunday services, and share a meal with them afterwards). If we had a home in West End, as a church, we’d be able to open it up during the week – to be hospitable with it in our community. This has been one of the great things about LifePlace’s hospitality to us – they have offered us their place for use during the week.
For a long time people spoke of church buildings as ‘houses of God’ – as though they were particularly sacred spaces akin to the Old Testament temple. We’ve rightly questioned what makes the bricks and mortar of church buildings any more sacred than any other space, but perhaps we’ve corrected this thinking in the wrong direction in our ‘desacrilising’ church buildings. One implication of this changing view of what church buildings are has been that many churches have been able to open up their spaces – to be hospitable – to other groups from the community; a church I was at as a student rented its hall to a local tutoring company for after school classes, the church I grew up in rented its space to various dance classes and AA meetings… but what if that’s actually exactly how ‘sacred’ space should be used in line with the hospitable character of God? What if that’s a result of using sacred space the way it should be used, and that the right correction to the wrong thinking about church buildings as ‘the house of God’ isn’t to desacrilise church buildings but to see all space occupied by Christians – including our homes and workplaces – as sacred. It’s hard to think of a church as meeting in ‘sacred’ space when you’re setting up in a school, or a theatre, or an opera rehearsal space – but perhaps these spaces actually have something to teach us about the problem with approaching space with a sort of secular/sacred divide.
What if all space is meant to be sacred – and can be reclaimed as sacred when God’s people make it a home as he makes a home in us, and in the world through us? What if setting up in a theatre or the opera is like setting up a temporary embassy? And more permanent spaces – like our Carina ministry centre – are like permanent bits of space we’ve claimed as sacred? What if this is also true of our homes? What if we should be thinking of our homes as sacred spaces where we, as ambassadors for Christ, invite people to taste and see God’s goodness in our love and hospitality (and in the midst of our mess)? What if the problem isn’t seeing church buildings as ‘the house of God’ – but only church buildings as ‘the house of God’?
When Solomon builds the first temple and God arrives in it in fire and glory, God says: “
“I have consecrated this temple, which you have built, by putting my Name there forever. My eyes and my heart will always be there.” – 1 Kings 9:3
If the Temple – the house of God – is where God’s eyes and heart are present – where he dwells with his people, then this is certainly true of our church buildings where we meet in his name, as his people, proclaiming his goodness to the world and modelling his hospitality as we love each other and those who come among us to taste and see God’s goodness – but it is also true wherever we then go as God’s living temples.
When God’s Spirit arrives on his people – as an answer to Old Testament prophecies about the end of the exile (what God told Solomon would happen if his people turned away from his presence) it arrives in what looks like ‘tongues of fire’ – in fire and glory – and marks us out as God’s living temples; people God attaches his name to, where his eyes and heart will always dwell. God dwells with us in a profound way in the life of Jesus – the word who becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14), but who also breathes the Spirit of God into his people to make a home in us. Jesus is God’s temple – his glorious, spirit filled, presence in the world (John 2:20-21) – and then he makes us temples with him. After the resurrection Jesus breathes his Spirit into his followers and sends them into the world as the father sent him (John 20:21-22). As living, breathing, temples. And this is for all Christians, as Paul puts it:
“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20
This means there is no secular space occupied by Christians; wherever we go God’s presence goes with us. Whatever space we claim (or reclaim) in this world is space that is revealing the truth that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’ – how we use our space is what makes it home; home, for us Christians, is where God’s heart is. And home is where we are.
Paul doesn’t just talk about us as temples – he also talks about us as image bearers (of Jesus) and new creations who are ‘ambassadors’ for Christ (2 Corinthians 3-5). Where we live and breathe – the space we occupy – is space being occupied by representatives of God’s kingdom. The spaces occupied by ambassadors – embassies – are spaces that belong to and reveal the nature of the king who sends them into the world. Our homes – and our church buildings – are sacred embassies of the new creation; a home where people can taste who God is and what is to come.
Part of our thinking in this series has been shaped by an excellent journal article by Greg Beale Eden, the Temple, And the Church’s Mission in the New Creation. Beale shows how right from the beginning God has been a homemaker, interested in inviting us to dwell with him as he dwells with us, that this is the story of the Bible from start to finish. He says our mission – from the opening pages of the Bible – through to the Great Commission – has been to spread the presence of God – his home, his temple, to every inch of the world that his image-bearing people occupy… all space is made to be sacred; the idea of a secular ‘out there’ or sacred space being limited to buildings owned by church institutions doesn’t fit with the expansive picture of God making the cosmos to be his home with us told by the Bible. Beale writes about Adam’s task (in the garden of Eden, given before she is created in the story but a task she is a necessary ally and partner in (especially given God’s male and female image bearers are tasked with this in Genesis 1):
“As he was to begin to rule over and subdue the earth, he was to extend the geographical boundaries to the Garden of Eden until Eden extended throughout and covered the whole earth. This meant the presence of God which was limited to Eden was to be extended throughout the whole earth. God’s presence was to “ﬁll” the entire earth.”
Beale makes the point in his article that all the garden and temple imagery in God’s places in the Old Testament anticipate the New Creation, where God will dwell with his people; and this has implications for us and what we think of space – or homes – whether our houses, or our church buildings – the space we occupy is space that God occupies; his ‘embassies’; sacred tastes of the coming of the Kingdom, previews of the New Creation. Whether a place is ‘home’ is in this world, for us Christians is measured by how ‘sacred’ a place is, or how much it represents life in the New Creation. We live ‘between two worlds’ – there’ll not yet be a place where everything is made new, but we are already, as Paul puts it, new creations in Christ, or temples of the living God, with his Spirit dwelling in us. When it comes to how the eternal home and its ‘breaking in’ to this world shaped the lives of the first human temples of the Holy Spirit, the church in Acts 2, Paul gives this picture of homemaking – of hospitality – that might guide us in thinking about what our homes and church spaces might be like if they’re ‘embassies’ of the kingdom of God. There’s a lot of pressure being put on Christians to withdraw from the world (both from the world, and from Christian thinkers/writers). It’s true that ‘secular’ spaces are increasingly not being made available to us – that we might not feel welcome in a world that did its best not to welcome Jesus – but perhaps our strategy for advancing into the world, on mission, actually looks like claiming and opening space as homes for this sort of activity, and for the sort of hospitality of others (and their ideas) that is increasingly being denied for us.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” – Acts 2:42-47
Home for my family — whether church, or our house — has always felt temporary, it’s by looking to the eternal home that God is preparing for us, and living in anticipation of that home with him, by his Spirit, that we’re able to turn houses and buildings in this world into homes that aren’t just where our hearts are, but where God’s heart is too.