In chapter 2 of this provocative little book Viola and Barna come on strong against the "church building." They argue that a church owning and meeting in a building, as we typically do today, is unbiblical, of pagan origins, and works against the spiritual health of Christians. They believe that moving the church's central gathering from a private house to a devoted building "is based on the benighted idea that worship is removed from everyday life." (38) Let me say on the front end I do believe we need to rethink how we use our church buildings. It is a worthwhile question - what justifies the cost of a building? Do we pay tremendous overhead for a meeting place we use once a week? How many small churches struggle to pay their utilities and maintenance bills on a building they simply do not need? Is that the best stewardship of God's money? How can we use the buildings we have in a way that glorifies God, strengthens the church and blesses the community to which we have been sent? A great example for effective use of a church facility is Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY. We would also do well to pay attention to the design and aesthetics of our meeting places because these things do have an impact on our worship. We should not dismiss the issue, or some of the problems the authors point out with owning a building.
However, I do not believe the church met in homes because of a developed ideology. Rather, I believe they met in homes because it was the most natural context in which to gather. And as the church grew some homes were devoted to such gatherings and functioned more like our modern church buildings. While their account of the history of church buildings is generally informative, it is a bit heavy handed and too quickly dismisses the Puritan's take on the meeting house. The Puritans were concerned with many of the same issues Barna and Viola are concerned with and sought to answer them according to Scripture.
I would also agree that the church should continue to gather in people's homes, in smaller groups beyond the greater gathering on the Lord's Day, for the purpose of prayer, devotion to Scripture, the development of fellowship, the practice of hospitality and evangelism and more. I have argued for years that the church cannot experience New Testament Christian life apart from being involved in one another's lives and spending time in one another's homes. Yet I believe this can be accomplished without sacrificing the larger gathering on the Lord's Day. I'll give more of my thoughts on worship in the next post this weekend.
I just don't find Barna's and Viola's arguments convincing. The early church did not have corporately owned buildings, and the church buildings we have today often create problems for the church. I agree. At the same time, the early church members did not own individual copies of the Scriptures. Scripture was never read privately in the Bible, but only in the context of a gathering. Today every Christian has multiple bibles and unfortunately most see little value in reading the bible in the corporate context. What is the solution? Throwing out our personal copies? Returning to the first century context of a shared text read only in the assembly? I wouldn't buy that argument either. I think there is a need for reformation as it relates to the church and her buildings, just as their is need for reformation as it relates to the Christian and his bible. Reformation in use, not repudiation of use.