In Praise of Empty Churches
By Nathan Brown
I like spending time in empty churches. If I am visiting a church to speak, I like to visit the building the day before, or arrive early—if possible—to get “a feel” for the place, to pray quietly, and to familiarize myself with the church building. But even apart from speaking preparation, I simply enjoy visiting empty churches and pausing for a few moments in the sacred atmosphere that can be found in many of these places.
First, these are most often places with an extra touch of beauty. Even if simple and bare, there is usually something that acknowledges and emphasizes the specialness of the space. Whether a grand stained-glass window or a dusty, perhaps faded arrangement of silk flowers, someone has tried to make this place different. Even in a multi-purpose hall, used in various ways during the week, when tidied for Sabbath with chairs arranged in expectation of the congregation, some sense of specialness settles into place. God is among His people, and the preparation for their collective presence invites Him there again.
But there is another sense in which the special nature of these places sits with me as I breathe their air. These are places with history. So many significant memories and life events have taken place here. Countless worship services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals seem to leave a kind of sacred dust that settles almost unnoticed on the furniture and collects quietly in the corners of the room. It is the holy untidiness of the lives that pass through these places, celebrating their faith and joys, mourning their losses, and finding meaning in their everydayness. By virtue of the milestones and memories accumulated in such places, they become special and sacred.
But the greater sense I get in these empty churches is that of what is not there. We have probably heard it said enough times that we can almost believe that “church is not a building.” But we also must take the next step and realize that church is not a gathering of people for a few hours once a week. Empty churches should remind us of this. When they are empty, churches—and their people—are active in homes, jobs, schools, and communities. They are no less the church.
In Pursuing Justice, Ken Wytsma notes the distinction between the “church gathered,” those few hours of corporate worship each week, and the “church scattered.” It neatly echoes Jesus’ descriptions of the church gathered together as a light on a hill (see Matt. 5:14), at the same time as being the “salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), scattered and mixed into the world it should be seasoning, flavoring, and transforming.
When I sit quietly in an empty church, I imagine its people faithfully and practically living as people of God in the surrounding community. “For many of us, our intentional focus on God and His purposes happens during church,” Wytsma writes. “But Isaiah 58 seems to be suggesting that God is more concerned about how we spend our scattered time than our gathered time. . . . The real impact of the church will be felt, for better or worse, where it connects to the messiness of the remaining 166 hours of the week” (pp. 226, 227). Our faith should matter most when we are not at church.
At its best, an empty church is a symbol of an active, living church. No, we should “not neglect our meeting together” (Heb. 10:25). But even this should be, first, to worship God, and second, “to motivate one another to acts of love and good works” (verse 24). One of the primary purposes of our gathering must be our scattering. Encouraged by our corporate worship and community of faith, we become more effective agents of the kingdom of God in our everyday lives.
So when I have the opportunity to spend a few reflective moments inside an empty church, I am encouraged and reminded—even if only in my imagination—of the active mission of the church, not so much to fill buildings, but to change lives and transform communities. Sometimes that happens in a worship service. More often it happens in “saltier” ways while the church building is empty.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.