If you are ever privileged enough to visit Israel, you might find yourself standing 1476 feet above the Jezreel Valley at the top of Mount Tabor. This is the traditional spot upon which Jesus was transfigured in the presence of Peter, James and John. I’m sure you remember the moment, and I’m quite sure Peter will never forget it… “While Peter was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” Lk. 9:34-35. This of course takes place precisely after Peter recognizes Moses and Elijah who are conversing with Jesus, and then suggests that it would be a great idea if he (Peter) builds three shelters for them.
Today a Roman Catholic Church completed in 1924 resides on the supposed spot of the transfiguration. It is built upon the ruins of a 12th century Crusader Catholic Church, which is itself built upon the ruins of a 4th-6th century Byzantine Era Church. The artistry and decor of the most recent building ironically has three rooms. The two on either side are built to honor Moses and Elijah, while the one in the middle is built to honor Jesus. I guess what Peter had been discouraged to accomplish, others finished for him.
I felt as if this experience spoke directly to what many American churches face when building impressive structures that are meant to be attractional to those we know need Jesus.
Here’s an irony to throw at you. As I write this article in a month themed, “If You Build It, They Won’t Come”, we are 3 weeks away from occupying the brand new Gateway Church of Christ building. It truly is a state of the art facility! We were painstakingly intentional, designing every facet of the building to be attractive, cutting edge, and inviting to the general public. The opportunity to build was not of our doing, but rather something that completely fell in our laps. Kind of akin to hitting the winning jackpot lottery numbers without ever buying a ticket. Many ministers spend their entire careers wishing something like this would happen to them (If I’m being honest, I know I have). While culture shifts all around us, many of us find ourselves stuck in a building that is not only uninviting, but in many cases has often been guilty of manufacturing more hurt than healing. Out of our desire to change that culture we many times build something out of the hope that it reflects what we dream we are really like!
The experience at the Church of the Transfiguration is beautiful no doubt. Artistically its mosaics are designed to tell a story. This great story is reflected in the architecture. What pained me was that while this beautiful structure serves its purpose to retell a story, it stands as a monument of something that happened there. It’s not so much a place of sending but rather a place of reminding. There is a biblical precedent for that. We are all familiar with the hebrew scriptures that left instructions to the Jewish people to build altars at locations where God had delivered them to be set as a reminder to future generations of what God had done. It is part of remembering our story.
I remember feeling badly for the designers of the past structures. When they built their own buildings they were all doing something they felt was for the future. What they didn’t know at the time, was that over time, the land would change ownership and their beautiful structures would be torn down and largely forgotten. Who knows how many people their work inspired? Who knows what kind of ministerial work emanated from that precipice? That reminder stuck with me as we were then in the beginning phases of relocating and designing a structure for the future. How would we do it differently?
The way we went about it was to build something that helped people find ways they could be invited into a part of this living story. We wanted to welcome them in a way that gave them a freedom from judgment and allowed them to change their current story. We wanted to create an atmosphere that positively affected the broken stories of others with the truth of Jesus. In other words we had to start reminding ourselves while teaching our people that the church is DYNAMIC not STATIC. The church for millennia has spread due to the dynamic nature of its origin. It should never be bound to a location, but rather a people. I’m reminded of Acts 7:48-50 where Luke reminds us that “the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?” Or better yet, 1 Corinthians 3:16 “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?”
Jesus gave the orders to go and build disciples, not buildings. Yet it’s also worth noting that he didn’t condemn the practice of building either. While building a new building might excite those who have positive memories of once belonging to a church, it doesn’t exactly draw the masses. The public generally doesn’t care. If we want them to come, just as the father longed for his prodigal son to come home, we must create a place that draws them with compassion, not judgment. A place that offers forgiveness not grudges. Wherever we are we must maintain the dynamic nature of the church and try our best not to become static.