Holy Men in Holy Buildings in Holy Garments

Last week’s blog was a bit of a rant against pastors defying the government over Covid precautions.

We looked at the felt need of so many to move Church back into a building. I got some pushback (which I welcome) from pastors stuck on large gatherings hardly resembling the Church in, say, Acts 14.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what I see as overdependence on buildings, bucks and bottoms in seats. Any discussion involving buildings, etc., inevitably leads to a comparison of the Church in China to that in Russia after the Communists overran each country. We’ve all drawn this contrast at one time or another.

A “heretical cult leader” in China

Hudson Taylor had the first significant breakthrough in China a century before the rise of Mao Zedong. A couple of decades before the Communist victory over the legitimate Chinese government, Watchman Nee broke with established church tradition and took a pounding for it. Cult leader, heretic, you name it he wore the names. However, he prepared the Church for the devastation to follow.

The microchurch movement led by Nee survived and thrived while the Communists government seized all church properties. They kicked out every missionary and arrested, even murdered, prominent pastors. It all looked like a dead-end for the gospel in China—until Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger flew there to reopen diplomatic relationships with the hidden empire. Among other cultural phenomena, they discovered 75 million Christians meeting “underground.” This was essentially a house church movement operating without seminaries, adequate publishing means or any form of government protection. Yet, just 30 years after Mao stamped out Christianity, it had grown by 7500 percent. This after taking more than a century to achieve the first million souls.

By contrast, the Church in Russian gathered around holy men in holy garments in sacred buildings and largely dependent on the government for support. Though it survived a similar purging, the Church in Russia did not thrive.

According to my friend, Neil Cole, in his book Rising Tides, the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong mobilized the Church rather than destroy it. According to Neil, more than 160 million believers in China give the Church about 12 percent of the population.

Russian Frustration and Loss

Back in Russia, the Church was undone by its dependency on governmental favor, religious buildings, central meetings and holy men in unique clothes. Compare this to the Church in the West (and that model which we so freely export). We depend, perhaps too much, on religious buildings, holy meetings and holy people who dress differently—be these clerical garments or expensive clothes designed to keep leaders looking “relevant” (have you seen the website, preachersnsneakers.com?).

In many ways, we’re cruising for a bruising should the government turn against us in any way. The culture has already pretty much voted against us with their feet—they’re not coming to our Sunday events.

You and Yours?

So, what about you? Could you operate for a decade without a building called a church to hold your actual church? What would you do if you lost such a privilege (it is a privilege and a valuable one—I’m not against church buildings but frustrated by our over-dependence on them. How do you define the Church? How would you determine what it takes to be a disciple of Christ? These questions are crucial to us navigating times of crisis like that which we’ve just been through or perhaps in the aftermath of an extreme weather event. How dependant are you on things which are not necessary to be the Church?

Remember, comments are always read and appreciated! Please sound off as it builds community…

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19 thoughts on “Holy Men in Holy Buildings in Holy Garments”

  1. As always, I appreciate these challenges and am incredibly encouraged, so thank you!

    I’m finding that in my neck of the woods (Charlotte, NC) that language about Sunday/buildings/attendance is changing, but my assumption is that we are about 10 years laggard in behavioral/cultural shifts taking place inside these church operating systems. Even those who KNOW what’s right and speak discipleship fluently still have a Sunday morning and website and staff culture that speaks opposite to it. I think we are potentially underestimating exactly all the implications of this shift. But hey, just my opinion!

    1. Casey,
      I love, “I think we are potentially underestimating exactly all the implications of this shift. But hey, just my opinion!” It’s the implications of the ground shifting beneath our feet that signal the adjustments the future holds.
      Ralph

      1. I agree with you that we put to much value on the buildings and progeams. There needs to be an awakening for discipleship.

  2. I agree with this post. We are overly dependent on the “3 B’s” (buildings, bucks and bottoms). The micro church movement in China has proven the most successful form of evangelism in the modern world. The beautiful church buildings in Europe are tourist attractions with virtually no members. “The Church” (Ekklesia) in its most basic form is 2 or more followers of Jesus who are loving God, loving their neighbors, and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ to any and all in their sphere of influence. This can be done in the home, workplace, recreational space, or any place with or without buildings.

    1. While I appreciate megachurches and am thankful for buildings, etc I believe we must always start from the basics and work outward for a couple of reasons. First, the basics are our fallback as culture changes and also because we can get so caught up in our programs and other unnecessaries that we miss the basics which are sure to give life. If it is more than they had in Acts 14 after Paul & Barnabas appointed elders in every city it may not be necessary.

  3. Definitely agree even in some newer non denomination organizations there is too much focus on the building so church community happens in the building or not at all.
    The church we attend did not have live streaming at the beginning of the pandemic so we opted back to our prior church in a different state for live services.
    Several months into the pandemic live streaming was brought in and many changes but still the focus is around the building there is little going on outside the building.
    The newest is focus on segregating the church by age with additional events at the building, but if you do not fit the age group or time slot you are left with traditional Sunday morning Wednesday evening.
    It is unfortunate that an organization that started so different than the traditional church is now in many places part of it.
    To many churches require an 8-5 job with weekends off to have fellowship.

    1. Wow, that’s a mouthful. So many churches begin with simple fellowship but devolve to something else as they grow. Much of this is due to the Christian publishing industry and the heroes they hold up as examples for us all. The results are as you describe. Innovation, servanthood, etc go lacking. The results bring on homogenous look-like-me churches where so many can’t or don’t fit. Your mention of 8-5 jobs with weekends off points up just one limiting factor. I knew a megachurch pastor who held a small Sunday meeting at 5 AM so people who worked in bars could closeup at 2 AM, catch breakfast and unwind then be in church before heading home to sleep. He still operated from a massive campus but went the extra mile for fewer than 50 people. I’d do it for five.

  4. Kelly Hilderbrand

    I am actually amazed at the reaction of American churches to the Covid shutdown, the unnecessary mix of Christ and politics. Churches in Asia, particularly Thailand don’t have the same problem. If the government says go online, we do it. It is a communal and not individualistic society. People work together towards a common goal. The experience has actually brought Christians together and we have strategized new ways of connecting and communicating the gospel. The numbers show we are reaching more people than ever by going online, using streaming vodcasts to discuss important issues to society with prominent Thai Christians, doing small groups through Zoom. Creating Thai videos and posting them for the general Thai populace. Connecting and communicating through social media. Asians have easily adapted to the new tools to rework how we do church. Buildings are not necessary.

    1. Kelly,
      We’d like to hear more. You mentioned “vodcasts.” Are these online meetings which go beyond talking heads? While Americans whine about “Zoom fatigue,” I’ve personally found wonderful fellowship in what we’re calling digichurch. I lead one where our nearest neighbor lives nearly 600 miles from my house, the furthest is 1500 miles away but the fellowship and worship satisfy my soul. We sound horrible when we sing but it is still worship rather than performance and we share our blessings along with our pain and struggle. Never happens with even a small group sitting in rows watching others sing or listening to a lecture.

  5. Greg Wigfield

    Great writing Ralph! You are so right about the dependence on the buildings and programs…and all that goes with that. There is one other idea to attach to this. What about ‘new’ believers and seekers. IMO, people in today’s culture will struggle to make the shift from their world to the church world environment as we know it today. Imagine having no church background and the cultural shift that must be made just to be part of today’s church. It’s like another world.

    The micro church offers a relational way to engage in THE church. There is no cultural divide. There is simply the beauty of the church.

    1. Thanks Greg, seems we’ve lost the impetus for evangelism. People who live their lives online can be reached online, often better than in person. Especially true of people who are already critical of church with it’s expensive properties and programs. This is a time of flux and we all need to learn. I’m still in favor of church buildings but think the “Zoom crisis” offers more opportunities than problems.

  6. Kim L Richardson

    We have been taught to be faithful, to persevere, and work through things (not divorce); all good things – except when we apply them to our methodologies-buildings instead of to Jesus and Good News. Keep urging us on to know the difference.

    1. Wow Kim,
      Well said and succinct. Wish I had written that. It always interests me when we get religious and even doctrinal about the peripherals while ignoring the primary issues.

  7. Kevin Hopkins

    Ralph
    Your historical observations concerning the underground church is absolutely correct but this will be viewed as a threat to many traditional churches as this will affect their bottom line all while frustrating governments that are trying to control their population
    A hybrid of physical underground home church attendance mixed with digital evangelical platforms would be almost unstoppable !
    Love you Ralph

    1. Thanks Kevin,
      The future seems hybrid from where I sit. Those churches flexible enough to reshape to fit the opportunities provided by the pandemic prospered. Those who longed for the box suffered. A microchurch movement probably needs a “big box” as a center. Acts 2 looks like a hub-and-spoke operation to me. I wonder what things looked like in Antioch as we know the primary locus of the church seems to have moved to Syria a few decades in.

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