At some time in the life of any congregation there will be something happen to the church building. My current home church, Gospel Light Baptist Church, is no exception to this statement. June 17th started out like any other day. Being a Wednesday, I had already made plans to be at the church a little before the evening midweek service so I could print out the weekly prayer lists. Around ten o’clock that morning, one of our church couples that cleans the church called me and told me that the ceiling had collapsed in our sanctuary. A few minutes later, the pastor’s wife sent out a call to all our members cancelling Wednesday night service. Not only had the ceiling collapsed in the sanctuary, but throughout the church building there was a heavy layer of dust, insulation, and debris coating nearly every surface. The first thing that came to my mind is that while it is sad that our sanctuary was destroyed, it is just a building. No member was there when it fell – a miracle within itself.
Soon after, a local television began running a story about the damage to our sanctuary. While the report really didn’t mention a lot of details, it did pique the interests of many within our community. Nearly every member has been asked a variety of questions about what has happened and our congregation’s plans to rebuild. Just as other members have been asked, I have been asked how other members handling the collapse of our “church” ceiling. At first, I responded as anyone would – sharing that how I believe that the Lord had his hand on the entire situation. Then it dawned on me that many of the people who were asking me were equating what happened with the church building as actually happening to the “church.” There is a scriptural distinction between the two. What happened to our sanctuary happened to just a building. The church – the local assembly of born-again believers that meet in that building are what is important.
In Paul’s letter to Philemon, he writes, And to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus our fellowsoldier, and to the church in thy house (Philemon 1:2), he is clearly making a distinction between the church and the building where it meets. This is not the only time the distinction is made within scripture. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Colossus has a similar salutation, Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house (Colossians 4:15). In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, The churches of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house (1 Corinthians 16:19), again highlighting the relationship to the body of believers and the place where they meet. Even in Rome, there was a church meeting in the house of a believer: Likewise greet the church that is in their house. Salute my wellbeloved Epaenetus, who is the firstfruits of Achaia unto Christ (Romans 16:5). Each of these verses clearly show the church as not being a certain building or place but a group of local believers meeting together to worship the Lord, exhorting one another, and praising God.
The ceiling that once was in our sanctuary had been there for fifty years. It held its place over many weddings, baptisms, and other events that were special to nearly three generations of members. As you can see in the photograph to the left, it was made of beautifully crafted tongue in groove planking – and we took great pride in how beautiful our sanctuary was. But as much as it meant to so many people, it was not the church but just a building where we met. If you go to any church meeting across our country, you’ll discover that among the faithful, the church isn’t a building but a family. A family of born again believers who come together to do those very things Christians have done since the days of the apostles: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching (Hebrews 10:25), Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord (Ephesians 5:19); and to Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Colossians 3:16).