What does the demolition of a church building mean, theologically and personally?
In the winter of 2011, the building that once housed Summerside Presbyterian Church was torn down and demolished, to make way for a new church building that opened this past autumn. While I haven’t been an active member of the congregation for about four years, I grew up in that church, and its former building housed many of my cherished memories. I remember meeting in the assembly hall for youth group when I was 12; I remember games of hide – and – seek, and the taste of hot dogs on steamy Sunday school picnic days in June; I remember a few youth retreats with sleeping bags and loud, raucous music in my teens; I remember holding “alternative” worship services in the assembly hall on Wednesdays in summer 2007; and I remember my grandmother’s funeral on Feb. 1st, 2011, which was (coincidentally) the last official event that took place in the church before its demolition.
In light of all that, I ask again: what does the demolition of a church building mean? In order to understand what the demolition of one church building means, we should first ask how buildings are important to God’s people.
Buildings feature prominently in scripture: they can represent the height of human ambition, and the glory and grandeur of God. One witness to both of these characteristics is the Jewish temple, which the Jews built in Solomon’s time, and rebuilt after their return from exile in Babylonia. Time and time again, the psalmist points to the hill of Zion, and its accompanying temple, to indicate God’s love, power and majesty: “The Lord reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.” (Psalm 146:10) Isaiah’s first major vision occurred in the temple before its first destruction (Isaiah 6). The Apostles Paul and Peter both used the image of buildings to represent their congregations’ faith and devotion to God’s loving mission in the world (1 Corinthians 3:10 – 15, 1 Peter 2:5). Thus, it seems that the Jews and early Christians saw buildings, particularly the Jewish temple, as dwelling – places and metaphors for God’s presence.
God has certainly been present in Summerside Presbyterian Church! The youth group has grown: I remember, back in 2001, being the only person to consistently show up to the youth group. However, the last time I checked, there were more young adults attending. Someone I knew from high school returned to the church, and to faith, a few years ago and got married in the church shortly thereafter. And during my grandmother’s funeral, the church was nearly full, and the minister preached a down – to – earth and very accurate sermon that praised both of my grandparents and gave thanks for my grandmother’s legacy. A building can house powerful and personal memories, moments, and events that make God present.
So, the building of Summerside Presbyterian Church has been demolished in order to make way for a new structure. Just as the Jewish exiles in Babylon cried, “How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:4), so Presbyterians in Summerside may feel lost or uneasy as they await a new place of worship. The demolition of a building can mean the end of memories: there will be no more hot dogs, no more joyous singing (and there was much of that!), and no more heartfelt preaching at the old building of Summerside.
Instead, the congregation must go forward steadily into the future God has prepared for it. Summerside Presbyterian Church will have a new place, and so it can create a new place in people’s hearts—a space for both action and reflection that testifies to God’s loving presence. There will again be a place for Presbyterian people to be baptized, to marry, and to eat and worship together. The new building will house a community knit together by the love of God.
Theologically and personally, Summerside Presbyterian Church is much more than just a building: it proves true the first verse of the hymn, “I am the church! You are the church!” Indeed, the church is “not a building,” the church is “not a steeple,” and the church is “not a resting place.” Instead, Summerside Presbyterian Church is “a people,” a people whose actions, emotions and memories bear witness to God’s love in our midst. The demolition of a building means both the end of old memories, and the beginning of new ones … and both the old and the new memories allow us to live, love, and act as people of Jesus’ gracious Way.