Faith Matters: The church is not a building, the church is a people

People of faith have gathered in many places for worship through the ages.

Homes, streets, tents, beaches, lakesides, deserts, mountains, cathedrals, chapels, temples, mosques and sanctuaries of all kinds — from the most austere to the most ornate.

When my young family lived in Cambridge, England, we visited many cathedrals. I’ll never forget the day we walked into one with a massive vaulted ceiling and our 4-year-old (now finishing college) exclaimed, “Wow!”

The majesty of the space inspired her worship of an awesome God.

I have had the privilege of serving two new churches, during which time a sanctuary was built. It is an interesting journey to meet with a team of people over a period of years with the help of an architect to decide what type of space to build for God’s people to worship.

There are functional decisions, such as “How will people enter and what type of sound system will be used for music and spoken word?”

There are financial decisions, such as “How much and what type of space can be afforded when the congregation wants to keep the focus on ministry and mission, not property?”

Elizabeth Deibert profile.jpg
The Rev. Elizabeth Deibert is the pastor at Peace Presbyterian Church, 12705 State Road 64, Lakewood Ranch.

Perhaps most significantly, there are theological decisions, such as “What do we want to communicate about God and the people of God by the space and its furnishings?”

Twenty-first century contemporary churches seem to want the worship space to feel like a concert venue, while medieval Christians seemed to want worshippers to experience the magnitude of God’s glory.

Others hope that a sanctuary will communicate both the awesome glory of God and the intimate community of the worshippers simultaneously.

The church I serve now is having a dedication of the sanctuary at 4 p.m. on March 3. On that day, we will give thanks to God for the sanctuary itself with its welcoming arms of Christ seen in the Celtic cross on the chancel wall.

We will dedicate a carefully designed pulpit, communion table, and baptismal font, all made from Live Oak taken from the land on which the sanctuary sits. These pieces, including the cross, all built by a Presbyterian minister-carpenter, are full of Christian symbolism.

We will also dedicate a new organ that inspires our praise and prayer with its digitally-recorded pipe replication plus hundreds of other instrumental sounds.

As we have taught the children by song, “The church is not a building … not a steeple … not a resting place … the church is a people.”

As the sanctuary was being built, we wrote prayers, hymns, scriptures and names of congregants and other saints on the walls before drywall, a reminder that we are “surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” (Hebrews 12).

During this time of building, we have also sung this beautiful hymn of Marty Haugen: “Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive. Built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions: all are welcome; all are welcome; all are welcome in this place ...”

In this sense, we will never stop building Christ’s sanctuary of peace, hope and love.

The Rev. Elizabeth Deibert is the pastor at Peace Presbyterian Church, 12705 State Road 64, Lakewood Ranch. Faith Matters is a regular feature of Saturday’s Bradenton Herald, written by local clergy members.