As a young believer, I was taught that a church is a community, not a building. The meeting place could explode in flames, but as long as its members stuck together in love and unity, the church itself would not be destroyed.
When it comes to my own places of worship, I’ve shrugged off any sentimental notions that the building matters to my spiritual journey.
I believed this and still do, even though I’ve often run too far in the direction of detachment, viewing church buildings with suspicion. Their focus is off, I’ll judge quietly when spotting a swanky new sanctuary. They care more about appearances than the heart. When it comes to my own places of worship, I’ve shrugged off any sentimental notions that the building matters to my spiritual journey. We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen, right?
But lately I’ve learned that what we see—or hear—in our building of worship draws us closer to the greatest Unseen.
Ed Reavy, a fiddler-plumber who was born in Ireland and spent his adult life in Philadelphia, honored his boyhood church in Maudabawn, County Cavan, with a reel. “Maudabawn Chapel” is a relatively new tune (believed to be composed in the 1950s) in the massive repertoire of traditional Irish pieces, but no less loved among fiddlers who appreciate its rambunctiousness and range. In fact, I’m still puzzling over the tune’s wild, meandering stream of notes. The church itself, which one can visit today as St. Patrick’s Church, Maudabawn, is a simple chapel in the countryside, appointed with a water mill, grotto garden, walking paths, a bridge, and plenty of gray stone covered in moss. It should have a gentle, hammered dulcimer air as its soundtrack, not a fevered dance. But to Reavy, the church inspired that level of joy.
How important can—or should—a church building be, especially to those from denominations that tend to downplay tradition?
For a week or two, I played this reel on my fiddle. I looked at Google images and street views of St. Patrick’s. I thought of the fervor Reavy must have felt for his church. Then I began to think about my own Sunday spot.
For the past nine years, I’ve attended New Hope Christian Community, a medium-sized, diverse congregation in the far north Chicago suburb of Round Lake Heights. As a church plant in 2009, New Hope rented a civic center and school until procuring its own building in 2011—an abandoned furniture warehouse. Over the course of 18 months, the congregation volunteered thousands of hours to install new electric and HVAC, repair the roof, build new bathrooms, extend the water lines, install a handicap ramp and stairs, break up concrete floors and replace them, install new doorways, and much more before opening for services in May of 2013. For my children, it’s been their church home during their formative years. It’s their Maudabawn Chapel.
“Spaces do matter,” says our pastor, Gary Ricci. “I like our building because it answers questions about who we are. We’re on a major street because we want to be available to everyone in the community. We are a broken people, just like this rehabbed warehouse. This building tells stories of God’s faithfulness.”
Broken, indeed. New Hope’s nickname is “The Island of Misfit Toys,” and by looking at our community’s rap sheet of addictions, legal troubles, mental illness, family strifes, financial woes, and other ailments of the body and soul, it’s a wonder over three hundred people make it out of bed every Sunday to show up. But we do. And the walls reverberate with our song: arpeggios of laughter, chords of encouragement, and vibratos of sorrow and joy.
By looking at our community’s rap sheet of addictions, legal troubles, mental illness, family strifes, and financial woes, it’s a wonder over three hundred people make it out of bed every Sunday to show up.
At first glance, our church is a mostly windowless warehouse situated between a storage facility and a T-shirt screen printing shop. Hardly an inspiration for ebullient dancing. But with time, God’s stories begin to sing from the strings.
The stained glass image of Calvary hanging above the sanctuary doorway, handmade and donated to the church by an artist who wept while arranging the panes, thinking of the people who would watch the light break through the amber crosses during their baptisms and wedding vows.
The word “HOME”spray-painted by a young adult on the concrete floor of the sanctuary. It’s been hidden under carpet for years now, but she knows the word is there, speaking to the warmth of our church family.
In the back of the building is the Community Closet—a large room full of clothing and home goods that anyone in the community can access when in need, like a woman who couldn’t send her children to school because they didn’t have coats.
To me, the stage in the sanctuary, where I have fiddled worship songs and, yes, a reel or two to help raise funds for Feed My Starving Children.
“To me,” says Gary’s wife Elizabeth, “the New Hope church building has been an extended metaphor for the work God is doing in the lives of every person who walks through the doors. It is unfinished; we are unfinished. It is not all pretty, perfect and shiny, which somehow seems to give people permission to be real, raw, and let their guts hang out.”
And we let them hang out every week—vulnerably, shamelessly, and with a full measure of grace, cutting the rug in God’s rhythm and time.