“Let My People Go!” Adventism and the Tyranny of the Church Building

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“Let My People Go!” Adventism and the Tyranny of the Church Building

The church building has over the years evolved to become an important part of religious practice. This has been the place where rituals, sermons, communion, funeral services, matrimonial services, prayer, religious music, baptism, and various aspects of religion find their expression. As a liturgical church, Adventists have a special relationship with the church building which we regard as the central hub of worship. But almost six months after the declaration of the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to disrupt every aspect of our lives and many church buildings remain closed. While businesses are reinventing themselves in unprecedented ways, churches seem to be under a nostalgic spell waiting for a return to the building. By failing to see this closure as liberation from the tyranny of the church building and ritual, Christians are reacting no different from the Israelites who failed to see the Exodus as God’s deliverance from Egyptian tyranny.

 

To say COVID-19 has liberated us from the tyranny of the church building may sound controversial and sadly many seem oblivious to this reality or its implications. We have, over the years, invested many resources in setting up the church building as a place of worship. Like our counterparts in other denominations, in addition to spending on wages for church workers, we have also spent more on acquiring real estate and maintaining church property than on helping the poor and needy. This imbalance is rooted in our stewardship messages that give priority to tithes first, then local church offerings, and less on the ministry to the poor. Unfortunately, with much talk about changing the world and transforming peoples’ lives, this represents a cognitive dissonance between our stated values and practice. Our desire has been more about building our own “kingdom” at the expense of God’s kingdom. The tendency to attach promises of blessings and prosperity to giving to the church has manifested itself in skewed giving patterns that has resulted in a neglect of the poor.  Members have come to believe that giving to the church means giving to God rather than to the poor.  Focusing on making ourselves comfortable in a church building has become an end in itself to the detriment of our core mandate. However, if due to the pandemic the church building is no longer definitive in our worship or mission experience, shouldn’t we revise our priorities?

 

The tyranny of the church building is also seen in how the church building has come to occupy a central role in Sabbath observance and worship. Our Sabbaths have been characterized by going to a building or venue to have an experience. We have associated the church building as a place where we go to find God. Our Sabbath experience has been defined by going to church, sit like passive viewers in a cinema, watch a few talented performers and listen to a “paid expert” or unpaid pulpit celebrity who delivers a sermon around 11am. Thus, our opinion of any particular church has primarily been based on what we get from it rather than what it inspires us to give to others.  Such a model of church offers limited benefits in terms of real transformation and growth in an individual. However, COVID-19 has confirmed that we can go without rituals and traditions associated with the church building, while still fostering the worship of God in spirit and truth. In the comfort of our homes, worship and fellowship are now more organic and the toxic attachment to the preacher as the vessel for the word of God is lessened. The closure of church buildings has rendered useless much of the things we associated with religion. Without the building, we are left to experience God in more authentic ways. If we are still finding it hard to worship outside of the context of a church building, then perhaps we have been worshiping something else other than God. Deliverance from the tyranny of the building means we can develop lighter worship formats, intimate connections in small groups, and own our worship experiences. Gone are the days where we have to depend on some rigid program script divorced from our needs for the sake of compliance.

Previously, in the same church buildings, programs for children, youth, families, and outreach found their life. Now church buildings are closed, leaders in these departments are helplessly watching and waiting for the building to reopen. Instead of reinventing themselves in their newly found freedom, they are frantically trying to deliver the same plans/programs using online platforms.  The closure of churches has meant the death of religiosity and the birth of spirituality but many are in denial. We have survived six months without the rituals and ordinances associated with the church building. That which we treasured about church has been unavailable and rendered meaningless. With the closure of the church building or limitations on how many people can attend we are now free. The Sabbath instead of being kept is now keeping us.

Deliverance from the tyranny of the church building also means more time in the community. Mission is being redefined away from the public hall, tent, or church building. It is now about connection and conversation in people’s homes rather than sermonizing and dry theology.  Our church buildings have in the past devolved into centers of indoctrination rather than connection. We exerted efforts in enticing people to come to the building where we then ambushed them with sermons. From community guest days, free literature, health expos, and free meals our enticing machinery had grown. However, COVID-19 means more small groups; mission happens at home and in our neighborhoods. We are being forced to develop a genuine interest in people, not because there is an evangelistic crusade coming up but because we care. The challenge created is for us to take the church to the people as opposed to waiting for people to come to the building.

Could it be that with COVID-19, God is saying to leaders, “Let my people go”? The days of congested and rigid programs, regularized praise and worship, superficial mission efforts, compliance with some institutional calendar, long sermonizing and presentations, obsession with the church building is over.  The time has come for my people to experience me in more authentic ways. COVID-19 has brought to the fore a shift from literalism to spirituality; from ignorance to insight; from the narrow to the broad; from anxious personal rightness to warm concern for others; from certainty to curiosity; from shallow to deep–all of which we seem to have previously lost in the building.

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I am a development practitioner, Zimbabwean national based in Gaborone, Botswana. I hold a doctorate in development studies with extensive experience in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.