How do the people of God gather to worship? At the building, with the church. We don’t gather at the church, because the church is not a location. We don’t meet in the church, because the church is not a building. We meet at a building (or a home or a park or a cave), with the church.
God’s people used to gather at the tabernacle or the temple for their intensified seasons of worship. But now we have unhindered access to God at any and every location. No structure defines His presence, for no structure could contain His grace. God in Christ has come to tabernacle among us, and now we worship not at Jerusalem or Gerizim, but in spirit and in truth (John 4:20-24).
So if your church family owns a building, how do you gather? At the building, with the church.
Prepositions are packed with theology. That’s not a discardable point or a laughable nuance or a clever overstatement by someone who likes language. If you disagree and consider this just semantics, take it up with the author to the Hebrews:
“Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son” (Hebrews 3:5-6).
If these are just semantics, rarely has there been more weighty semantics. The difference between “in” and “over” is foundational to the author’s argument that Christ is greater than Moses.
We’re visiting many churches lately. These churches meet in various areas, neighborhoods, and buildings. Some are clean, green, and glossy. Others are dirty, old, and cramped. It’s important to notice that in the first two sentences, I meant the people. In the next two, I meant the buildings. That’s why the word “church” was only used in the first two. The church is made up of people and souls, not bricks and mortar.
These churches are not, must not, cannot be defined by the structures in which they meet. The sands of time will prevail against the wood and the glass and the concrete, but not even the gates of hell can prevail against the church. Buildings will fall, but the church will ever rise. Buildings can never represent God in any substantial way, but His people are being refashioned into His image, and are already called the body of Christ.
Every Sunday the people of God gather to commemorate Christ’s death, to celebrate His resurrection, and to anticipate His appearing. The location is only significant as the tool used to house and shelter the gathered saints. A well-built structure can foster togetherness, warmth, and intimacy, but a structure can never create such attitudes. We meet in Christ, beneath the cross, under the Word, on kingdom business, with each other, at whatever location is suitable. But it is Christ and the cross and the Word and the mission and each other that matter.
In an age of massive building drives producing temple-esque facilities that house fractured and individualistic church families, we must remember what (and who) the church really is and what it really means to be together. Sprucing up the facilities does not spruce up the church. The church is transformed by the Spirit through the Word.
The point here is not to speak against religious structures or building drives or necessary remodeling. The goal is to speak for the church.
There comes a time when the bathrooms must be updated and the asphault repaved and the building expanded. “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). But that time (and its resulting remodels) are not nearly as significant as we tend to think. Church growth is people growth; church health is soul health. Grace has broken into human history to redeem and rebuild sinners, not to recarpet the sanctuary.
So the next time you hear yourself saying, “We’re meeting at the church,” correct yourself. The truth is that you’re meeting at the building. No, you don’t have to turn this into a semantic legalism. But vocabulary betrays theology. We really do mean what we’re saying, though we protest that we really understand the deeper meaning. Decades of “going to church” and “meeting at the church” and “remodeling the church” can slowly erode the biblical definition of the “church.” Don’t think it can’t happen. It already has.
A week ago I drove over to our new house in Louisville to do a final walk-through. The previous owners’ grown son was packing up the last of the family’s belongings. As we entered through the garage, I asked him if he felt sad or sentimental to be moving his mother out of the house where he and his four siblings grew up. To my surprise, he said, “Not really.” His explanation was simple but profound: “It’s not the house that makes the family.”
Religious buildings are unique things. They can symbolize truth, foster worship, and storehouse memories. The building where you were baptized ought to be special. The pews of your childhood will naturally hold a nostalgic place in your heart. Centuries-old stain-glass windows grant a colorful glimpse into the long faithfulness of God shown to the many generations of His people. But beautiful and meaningful though they be, these will all perish, while the truth will remain: The church is a people, a body, a family. We do not gather at the temple of God. We are the temple of God (Ephesians 2:19-22).
So how do the people of God gather to worship? At the building, with the church.