Pretty Buildings


“Whenever vanity and gaiety, a love of pomp and dress, furniture, equipage, buildings, great company, expensive diversions, and elegant entertainments get the better of the principles and judgments of men and women, there is no knowing where they will stop, nor into what evils (natural, moral, or political) they will lead us.” ~John Quincy Adams

Not long ago I attended a conference at a new ministry complex that I just knew would fit perfectly into a Hollywood movie. Something like Debby Boone’s workplace in Sins of the Past (1984). A movie that shows the delusion and disingenuousness of the persons behind the scenes—though I’m sure they did not see themselves that way. In their own eyes they were empire builders, frontline evangelists, and ministry magnets. The facilities alone were evidence—why, look at this place! particular morning we were rushing around trying to make the early meeting. I had finished my own coffee in the car as we commuted. The lady with me (the driver) had not. She tried to take hers in—in a travel mug (not a paper cup)—but she was stopped short by a tall, icy female greeter. Mean enough to work for TSA.

“No coffee on the new carpet.”

That didn’t set well with either of us. When your building is more important than the people in it, you lose.

Though there was a café to the right of the lobby, the greeter would not so much as let my friend walk across the lobby to the café to finish her coffee. No. She had to walk back, across the mammoth parking lot, to the car and finish it there, in the hot sun, before she could come in.

Guests. Being bossed around like schoolchildren.

I told the greeter I didn’t like the attitude. After all, we weren’t children or youth bringing in popcorn and cold drinks. We were adults with morning coffee in a travel mug. “Sorry.”

She didn’t mean sorry: she was being sarcastic. Had she singled us out because we were easy prey? Would she have bullied a man this way?

My friend and I had been to other venues where signs said “No drink beyond this point”; but if you went in with bottled water or morning coffee, no one said anything. Why? Because most ministries dependent on freewill offerings have more sense than to offend a “consumer.” Carpets, floors, and walls are washable.

While my companion was gone, I sat down in the air-conditioned lobby on a plastic-upholstered sofa. Not even cloth. Plastic. The furniture and interior may have been new, but not plush. Merely functional. The patchwork-designed carpet didn’t look like much either. And they were putting on airs—for this?

Years ago, I remembered, a certain church had built a new edifice that was the pride and joy of the ruling class—you do know that in a church there is a ruling class, don’t you? Usually they pay for much of what the underclass take for granted.

Well, this ruling class had provided much of the outlay for the new building, and they thought they owned it. The young pastor didn’t have any better sense than to appropriate the building for that for which it was built: as a house of worship. So he started a bus ministry, bought a fleet of busses, and began bringing in hundreds of street children for Sunday school and extended session.

The ruling class didn’t like it.

It seems the street children weren’t as well-bred as churched children. When the church not only taught the children but also fed the children, they behaved indelicately. Maintenance had to spend extra time in the large, painted, tiled gymnasium-sized room cleaning up the mess. There were dirty smudges on the wall, dirty footpads at the entrance doors, scuff marks, and handprints. Oh, the shame of it!

When the fussy ruling class could take no more, they counseled the young pastor that he was going to have to cut back the bus ministry.

“Over six hundred children? Some have been saved. Eventually they’ll bring in their parents, their step-parents, their grandparents … their aunts, their uncles, their cousins … We’re just getting started with this thing! This is only the beginning! Look what the Lord has done and is doing and will do! And you want me to cut back?”

They insisted.

So he canceled the bus ministry. The busses quit rolling. Then, they were no longer visible on the church parking lot. They had been sold.

The moment the bus ministry shut down, it felt as if life itself was sucked out of that proud place. A spirit of death came in and permanently took up residence in the corridors and classrooms. The regular attendance fell. People quit coming. During the midweek service, a grated gate curtained off the unused parts of the building. After a few years the ruling class passed on to their reward, and no one cared what the building looked like or what it was all about because it no longer mattered. The sanctuary was turned into something more in keeping with its character: a funeral chapel.

When I was younger, my parents used to bring people to church. Sometimes they messed up the carpet of the car. Sometimes they messed up the carpet (concrete, tile, or hardwood floor) of the church. But whoever let a little dirt or mud get in the way of evangelism?

Messiness is a sign of life. Who would want a kitchen that never got dirty? a bathroom? a baby? a house? If a place is being used, it should look used, don’t you think? If it’s too sterile—and pretty—it’s not fulfilling its purpose.

“Not a few millionaires have thrown bushel baskets of money into the church. Many of the elaborate buildings, with crosses perched high on them, adorn the highways, and many are fulfillments of the prophecy, ‘Thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead’ [Revelation 3:1]. The church’s style is bold, the service cold. The places have finery but no fire. They are supermodern but lack the supernatural …. Our immediate need is for spiritual millionaires, men who can bring down the wealth of the world above on this stricken Church Age.” ~Leonard Ravenhill

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). So bring your half-drained morning coffee to the morning service if you’re running late. Be yourself.

“God isn’t coming back for buildings; He’s coming back for people.” ~Tommy Bates

Copyright © 2013 Alexandra Lee

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