Sacred Place? What Sacred Place?

Some more comments I want to add-on my posting The Sacred Cow of Going to Church which arose since that article especially about ‘sacred’ buildings.

I think any place or practice may become a sacred cow when we hold that thing somehow different to other things and kind of sacred, whether it be a building or an enclosed space or high mountains or deserts or ceremonies or rituals or whatever and we then treat them as important, even essential.

When we begin to think for a church to be authentic that it must be in a dedicated special place, that idea also becomes a sacred cow. But as Hebrews 10 shows, what authenticates real assembly in Jesus is encouragement and upbuilding of one another in love. But the practice of ‘going to church’ becomes a sacred cow. It’s untouchable.

In John 4 we read Jesus’ conversation with the woman of Samaria –he told her that the only true place of worship was not in Samaria or even in Jerusalem but in spirit and in truth. He went on to show that he was THE true place of worship. Remember also the Transfiguration episode when Peter wanted to venerate that place with 3 booths/ memorials but the solemn word from God was This is my Son—listen to him!

People talk about “the institutional church”. But what is this fictitious creature? However I think we can speak of institutionalism. Institutionalism has largely replaced the Holy Spirit. Shame.

Jesus did not intend his followers to copy the models of the world, of Judaism, of the Roman empire, or of any of the mystery or pagan religions. I believe he meant us to model faith communities on his example, like a family, a household, where everyone in his house were regarded as brothers and sisters. He taught them to love one another, forgive etc. He modelled and taught them the ways of the Holy Spirit. New wine demanded new wineskins. And a new outlook on the whole world.

I understand Jesus is present always with his people wherever they meet. However,

are we always truly present to him?

We can be present just to a group or meeting dynamic or to ‘worship’ or a ‘service’ or the often superb music or corporate singing, or great oratory or even an inspiring building –all of which can become an end in themselves. When the entertaining on-stage performances or dreary up-front ritualistic, repetitive program ends, everyone can then happily go home and get on with all the other (important?) aspects of their lives— compartmentalising which is encouraged by buildings and services, special places. God in a box. Worship of worship.

And we call it worship! Lord, help us.

I am not hung up on buildings. I think buildings can be very useful. After all as an architect I have designed many buildings and most of these were intended to provide hospitality, refuge, encouragement and kindness.

However, I am in agreement with Jesus, the apostles and the original followers who met wherever they could to teach and discuss the implications of the gospel. They avoided having special buildings for “worship”. That was not necessary when unselfish, Spirit-led believers opened their homes and Jesus’ family life was embraced in a new brotherhood with eating, drinking, thankfulness and encouragement.

Sure. I too know about some little home groups which can be as toxic and off-track as institutional set-ups with awful manipulation and leader domination of the people. Sadly. However these groups are invariably small in size and the damage is small and limited compared to the corporate, multi-national organisations with their huge budgets, marketing techniques and paid support staff. If the man at the top, the CEO, is in error or misbehaves, thousands are led astray. Wolves are common, but they do far more damage where there are bigger flocks.

There are huge drawbacks with having special religious buildings for ‘worship’, a concept unknown in followers of Jesus until the 3rd century when the rot of Christendom really set in.

They are costly, they use valuable land, they are used wastefully and spasmodically, they shout ‘look at us’, they perpetuate a spirit of grandeur and triumphalism. They preach the wrong message –dominance instead of servanthood, the remoteness of God instead of his present love.  Their architectural form does not fit the function of one-anotherness everywhere emphasized in the New Testament. Their programs often encourage laziness, an attitude of being served, self-righteousness, exclusiveness, conservatism and mystery. Preaching? Well, that is another sacred cow.

Ekklesia (translated ‘church’ in most English bibles) in the New Testament means people gathered around Jesus to encourage one another. Buildings were irrelevant. Time and place were incidental. ‘Programs’ were unknown, except for those breathed upon them by the Holy Spirit.

How the Letter to the Hebrews reflects these concepts! Remarkable, because it is such a Jewish approach without Gentile influence.

Is it not from habitual adherence to dead tradition that we continue to desire holy places instead of holy people? Maybe it is even disobedience, not hearing what God truly wants for his gathered ones.

Father, your will be done here on earth just as it is in heaven.

3 responses to “Sacred Place? What Sacred Place?

  1. Brian Mallalieu

    Right, right, right! So many just like me, who grew up assuming the model I was taken to/introduced to was Biblical because it was historical (from the 4th c.!) and led by qualified ‘experts’ — Oh Lord, please deliver us! Thanks, Ian.


  2. I think many churches prefer the Old Testament models of temple (worship) and priests (clergy), supported by tithes and offerings. Most clergy prefer those models because they can then have a profitable professional career, and most church members prefer them because they are proud to support (by mere attendance or minor financial gifts) their elevated leaders and impressive buildings. While they might acknowledge that Jesus himself is now the temple where God dwells (as in Jn. 2:21), or that his followers are now the temple where the Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 3:16), they think it is “biblical” to combine the O.T. models and N.T. theology. So the new theology and sacred “places” (people) get lost in the old wineskins.


  3. I used to see church buildings as being a valuable “shop front” where interested people had a recognisable place where they could go when they were interested in hearing about God.

    Apart from the faulty idea of expecting the world to come to “the church” and hear the gospel instead of the church going into the world to preach the gospel – a shop front is only worthwhile if the “shop” is offering quality goods and services.

    There is no value in a recognisable church building if those inside it are not displaying qualtiy Christian life and are not presenting a genuine Kindom gospel.

    In reality most church buildings have become a kind of refuge where people can play with token religion in privacy, away from the eyes of the world and away from the realities of their every day lives.


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