Jews have not, historically, had the mighty architecture of the Christians and Muslims. Why? Well, I think primarily because Judaism has been a nation of suffering. They started as nomads and then were enslaved; after escapement they had to fight for every inch of land. When they did form a city and a temple, it got destroyed. (Twice.) The most lasting global architectural symbol of Judaism remains the Wailing Wall…a destroyed section of wall, and a perfect symbol for the faith of these poor long-suffering people.
And you know what? They had a suffering Messiah. So it is perhaps no surprise to us that the early Christians—who called themselves “The Way” and were persecuted by both the early Pharisees and the Romans—also left us no architecture. We cannot return to one of their churches as we can to the Greek temples or the Roman Coliseum or other such ancient works.
Why? Because, like their Jewish elder brothers, early Christians were suffering servants, and did not spend either their time, energy, or money on building monuments to their faith. They built not monuments, but disciples.
But a few hundred years pass and The Way leads to Catholicism as the Roman Empire becomes the Holy Roman Empire. A few centuries after that, Islam comes onto the scene. In both cases, these are state religions…and as such they have the stability and wealth of governments to allow massive architecture. A government can starve its people and enslave them to build a pyramid (or a mosque, or a cathedral). They can work on projects over the course of decades and centuries, rather than just a few months until the next persecution comes.
Today, our capitalist system provides similar stability…and, similarly, the modern megachurch allows the poor to starve while building ever-expanding cathedrals. Safe from attack and flush in the funds of generous tithers, we expand and expand and expand our campuses, like a modern version of medieval Catholicism. The modern church may look more like a strip mall than a Gothic masterpiece, but the principle is the same: it is a massive expense spent by the local church for reasons either aesthetic or pragmatic…but certainly not to provide for the downtrodden.
How often have you heard a preacher quote Matthew 6:19-21 while encouraging you to give more in the offering basket?—
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (NIV)”
I often wonder how preachers can be so quick to quote the above in order to get you to give more, but then take that money and invest 80-90% of it in building projects and other things which, in fact, directly violate what Jesus is talking about! They tell you to give to the Lord…and then they use that money not for the things Jesus was talking about (see Matt 6:1-4, a few verses before, for example). Instead, they spend that money on building expansions and new furniture and A/V equipment and advertisements and the like.
They justify this as an investment in winning the lost to Jesus. Interesting that Jesus never seemed to mention anything about spending money in this way, but only for helping those in need. One must wonder, then, how we are any better than those medieval cathedral builders: for we both let people starve in the streets so that we can add yet more onto our building—whether it be a new nave in a Gothic cathedral or a new wing of Sunday School classrooms.
We seem to have forgotten that the symbol of our faith is not the church building but the cross. We are strangers and sufferers, not soldiers trying to expand our territory. We are in exile on this world, not expanding our physical borders. We are supposed to be pilgrims passing through—not city planners building our own small kingdoms.
Pastors, where your treasure is, there will your heart be. I didn’t say it, Jesus did. So let me ask you: when your flock gives you their alms trustingly, how are you using it? What does your financial statement say about where the heart of your church is?
Pastors, I understand the desire for spending your money on reaching the lost...so are you trying to do this by creating beautiful buildings or beautiful people? Only the latter is in line with the Christian philosophy.