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When our concept of the church becomes more about memories of “place,” that is, memories tied to a building, events that occurred in a building, our family’s relationship with a building, and our sense of identity is intertwined with that place; we are in a relationship with a building not Jesus of Nazareth. I understand this when I have conversations with persons on both sides of the current debate within United Methodism who feel they are losing their church and believe they have already lost their church. Somewhere along the way, we stopped regularly emphasizing (to both adults and children) that the church wasn’t a building. Instead, the church was the people. The building, our property, our cemeteries, and our classrooms held no spiritual value other than the value given to them by the people who used them to share the Gospel. The instant we forget this reality, our churches become no different than the Lion’s Club, the Grange Hall, the VFW, or any other socially conscious community organization. Methodists have a short memory. We like our buildings and the control they’ve given us over who can and cannot come into God’s kingdom. But now that our facilities are up for grabs, many people aren’t sure of their place in God’s kingdom. That happens when you tie your idea of salvation to a plot of land, bricks, mortar, and faded photographs, even one with stained glass windows and a baptismal font your great-granddaddy carved.

Granted, some good times and moral moments may occur in these buildings. So do tedious and contentious committee meetings. Weddings, funerals, confirmations, and the like all happen under the roofs of our facilities. Yet even these holiest of services are about us and the Kodak moments of our lives. So, we squeeze a few scripture readings into weddings and funerals. Eulogies are about the deceased, and we offer a few words about resurrection, while the hymns point to us toward eternity. If either service lasts close to an hour, people will look at their watches. They want to get to the food. Wedding congregations don’t want to hear me explain what Paul meant about love or reflect seriously on the meaning of eternal life. In what should be our most sacred moments, some seek only a veneer of faith. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told to keep the wedding to under twenty minutes, cut the scripture, and leave out the Bible verses because all ten cousins will give a eulogy for Uncle Earl. We wouldn’t want a wedding or funeral to be confused with a church service.

Now, as that veneer feels threatened, those who’ve wanted to use the church only in good and bad times and occasionally asked for prayer requests for distant relatives they have never seen are often the most threatened, angry, and ready to divide the United Methodist Church. Have they no shame?

The church is made up of flawed, sinful, and redeemed people. Therefore, we need everyone we can get, especially sinners. Sinners united, that’s what I say! We also need places to live, love, work, and welcome other sinners into our fellowships. However, the buildings are not a means to an end. They were never intended to be. You and I are on a journey. When we slow down, the moment we get comfortable, the church becomes more about our wants and less about Jesus. So, stop thinking about the building. We’ll find somewhere to gather.  What’s best for you, your memories, and your sense of place? What’s best for the legacy of the carpenter from Nazareth? There will be two fundamentally different answers. You’re going to want to go with the last one. If I’m sure of anything, I’m certain of that. 

–Richard Bryant