Today many newly constructed houses of worship are reaching skyward, and many pastors and church officers are realizing the rewards as well as the trials of building programs. That these programs will exert a great influence on American church life goes without saying. The momentum a church generates by successfully completing a new edifice often can be felt for several years, and many pastors look forward to leading a congregation in building new or enlarged facilities.

It is natural for both pastor and people to want a breather after the strain of a building program, and to take their ease in Zion, as it were, by rejoicing and luxuriating in their achievements. Religion, however, is far more than physical facilities. The main task of the Christian church is not to erect impressive structures that bear glorious but mute testimony to the call of Christ to service and sacrifice. Unless a congregation’s qualities and attributes are of more than material significance, its new building will become but an empty shell that once housed a living organism of spiritual strength.

That religion is more than a building is apparent if we realize that without a congregation’s loyalty to God, a church building is but a mockery and a sham. The Old Testament records the story of the Tower of Babel, a structure that was intended to draw men heavenward to God, but which was, in fact, a useless idol. We read, too, of another building that was fashioned according to the commandment and will of God. On its day of dedication by King Solomon, God said concerning the Temple on Mount Zion, “… I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there forever.… And if thou wilt walk before me … in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, … then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel forever.… But if ye shall at all turn from following me … [and] go and serve other gods, and worship them: then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight …” (1 Kings 9:3 ff.).

Unfortunately, in his old age King Solomon’s heart was “turned away … after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God.” Thus the king’s idolatry became the seed of Israel’s destruction.

Each day the church of Christ faces the same danger. Will its program and mission be centered in undivided allegiance to God, and in confidence of his blessing? Or will the church place its expectation in its own handiwork, thus belying the hopes and glorious vision that first inspired believers to sacrifice for the erection of a beautiful structure? Will the church praise God primarily by the beauty of its buildings, or by the purity and loyalty of its members?

A minister in the Church of England has analyzed the temptation that often confronts churches in Europe whose lavish structures have become a financial burden. Writing for the World Council of Churches, Frank C. Bennett describes the problem as follows: “We remain obsessed with our heritage of apparatus and buildings. Thus the Church now finds itself like some indigent nobleman who must make a show of preserving the family mansion and retainers, lest he should seem to have become less noble. This becomes his life work; it absorbs him. So the Church is under temptation to be absorbed in maintaining itself and to compromise the Gospel in order to entice those who will have none of the Gospel but have the money. Not the preaching of Christ crucified is presented as the objective, but something entitled ‘spiritual reconstruction,’ ‘spiritual values’ or whatever it may be.… For in such circumstances the Church has to choose between a measure of prosperity and the life which can only come by death and resurrection. The latter is the choice of faith” (The Church’s Witness to God’s Design, p. 68).

Congregations that anticipate years of usefulness from their new buildings must choose loyalty to Christ as the proper inspiration for their people and for their program.

Further, that a building without purity of life is a lie and a deception is seen in the tragic history of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in the last hectic days before Judah’s captivity. All the signs of the times should have warned the people of impending disaster and judgment. Instead of returning to God, however, and confessing their sins as Jeremiah exhorted them, the people simply responded by pointing to the Temple in their midst. In this context Jeremiah’s words ring out: “Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these. For if ye thoroughly amend your ways, … then will I cause you to dwell in this place.… Will ye steal, murder, and commit adultery … and come stand before me in this house …? Is this house which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?… But go ye now unto … Shiloh, where I set my name at the first, and see what I did to it for the wickedness of my people Israel” (Jer. 7:4 ff.).

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An imposing and beautiful building, a full program of church activities, and a highly organized ecclesiastical machine are no substitute for personal commitment. Even the arduous labor or final satisfaction of completing a new church building is no reason to overlook the basic requirement of Christian discipleship. Do we who call Christ Lord and in his name build beautiful edifices really do what he commands?

As recorded in the book of Acts the first miracle performed by Peter and John took place at the gate of Herod’s temple against a dazzling display of elaborate furnishings and services. There the apostles found a lame man begging for alms, and with Christlike concern turned their attention from the splendor of the surroundings to the needs of a lowly individual.

As a church erects walls, its members ought to know what they are “walling in or walling out,” as Robert Frost would say. Scores of men and women outside the church long to know peace, assurance, and faith. A congregation must choose between making its church building merely a shelter from the storms of life or a base from which to minister to needy and hungry men.

Long ago at a strategic time in British history John Milton reminded his countrymen that “much remains to conquer still.” Similarly even after church construction is completed, “much remains to conquer still”—in allegiance to Christ, in obedience to his commandments, and in service for his name’s sake.—The Rev. KENNETH E. WILLIAMS, Minister, Ashbourne Presbyterian Church, Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

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