I often hear it said that ‘church,’ as understood in the New Testament, refers to people, not place. But this is an entirely false distinction.
When Jesus speaks of his church, he uses the word ekklesia. The ekklesia was a gathering of citizens called out of their homes into a public space, for the purpose of deliberation. In other words, place – public space – is a constitutive element of ekklesia.
Elsewhere, the word oikos is used to describe the church. Oikos means ‘household’ – and while a household is made up of people, those people are found in a house. Again, place is a constitutive element, not an incidental detail.
There are, of course, also images used to describe the church. Of these, two key images are of the church as the Body of Christ, and as the Bride of Christ. At first glance, both might appear to reinforce the belief that church is people, not place. But yet again, place forms an essential element.
In the Prologue to John’s Gospel, the incarnation – the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us – is described in this way: he ‘tabernacled’ among us. This is a reference to the time when the people Moses had led out of Egypt lived in tents, and God had a tent with them. A tent, especially a large tent, is a place. Church, as Body of Christ, is a tent among the tents of the people.
John’s account of the last words of Jesus to his disciples before his crucifixion include Jesus telling them that they cannot follow him now, but that he goes to prepare a room for them in his Father’s house, and will return and take them to be with him there. This is the imagery of the bridegroom, who would build a room – in more recent times, an additional floor – onto his parental home, and then come to take his bride to live there with him. This is bride imagery. It is usually taken by Christians to refer to heaven, to a place after death. But in John’s Gospel, Jesus returning to his disciples is seen in the resurrection; and there is no account of his ascension into heaven. So here we have church as Bride of Christ imagery with place where we experience living with Jesus being an essential element.
I would suggest that in trying to establish an understanding of church as something we are part of, not simply something we attend, we have overstated our case. And I would further suggest that this is detrimental to mission.
Human beings are capable of only a finite number of relationships. In contexts with high mobility, church as people wonderfully provides some of the relationships we need. But in contexts of high stability, where most of the population have lived in one place their whole lives, they are already at relational capacity. Nonetheless, these same neighbourhoods have often experienced the loss – over and over again – of buildings of constitutive importance to the identity of the community. That is to say, their experience of the dislocation of high mobility relates to places, not people.
I currently live in such a context.
Earlier this year, we placed a visitors’ book in the Minster. Looking through the comments people have written, two recurring themes stand out:
an appreciation of the building as a place of beauty;
and an appreciation of the building as an oasis of peace.
A warm and helpful welcome from our people matters too, but within the context of place.
It would appear that there is a perceived need for beauty and peace, a perceived lack of beauty and peace in other places.
So how might scripture inform our understanding of church as a place of beauty and of peace?
I’m thinking that the Psalms might be a good place to start.