Recently we drove to a church in a nearby town for a meeting. Over one hundred years old, that building is one of the grand structures that harken back to a time when many churches were spacious, ornate, and majestic. It was a symbol of the heyday of the old Mainline churches. Inside, we were struck by the soaring ceilings, lustrous woodwork, intricate stained glass, and numerous "extras," such as giant wooden pocket doors which could be lowered from the ceiling as dividers. A towering pipe organ took center stage behind the pulpit, and everywhere were paintings and other artwork.
And yet a placard ff to the side bore witness to the reality of this beautiful place. "Last Sunday Attendance: 56" This grand structure, with a balcony big enough to accommodate entire congregations, was simply limping along as a shadow of its former self.
Don't get me wrong, art and architecture have an important role to play in the life of the church. I am no iconoclast. It is important for churches to display art and utilize architecture that instructs and inspires, and I can be just as awestruck as the next person by the grandeur of such a church. Nevertheless, standing in this place, one imagines a time when the emphasis was on the edifice, not on the spirit within it. Small town money was poured into this project during the Gilded Age, while not nearly as much was invested in the building and upkeep of souls. Along one wall the original blueprints of the church, laminated and carefully hung in layers, are on display. It's as if to say herein lies our solid footing -- in a cold, unyielding architect's draft.
Isn't it easy for us to treat our own lives in the same way? We measure success and stability on the basis of material gain, something that can easily be lost, destroyed, or left behind. Almost all of us fall into the trap, forgetting that Jesus and his disciples had nothing to speak of in terms of money or possessions. Yet the pull is a heavy one and the temptation to think this way comes from every corner.
After Jesus states in Luke, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions,” he follows up with a parable:
And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”Jesus' point is that the rich man was foolish to rely on his abundant wealth alone. When death comes, possessions are entirely unimportant, and priorities are switched. When his death came all the man's savings had done no good. He would not be judged by his acquisitions but by his life. Jesus isn't saying that saving resources for the future is bad, but he is pointing out that all our goods have a finite purpose. It is spiritual richness that should be our priority.
It should be instructive for us that the most vital churches in our world are in fact our poorest. Suburban megachurches may attract a lot of people, but the truest spirit of Pentecost is found in half-built structures without chairs or running water, found in parts of the world where "want" and "need" take on different meanings than we normally experience in America. There, people walk miles to church, stand for hours, and give of meager resources all because of a fiery love of God.
There is no doubt that the beautiful church we saw has produced and nurtured some true saints over time. Yet I almost feel sorry for those who worship there week by week. They are distracted by man-made beauty which far too often obscures the true, more perfect beauty of the Savior.