In late 1981, I transferred from my first professional assignment in Los Angeles to Kingwood, a planned community located northeast of downtown Houston. Friendswood Development Company (FDC), a subsidiary of Exxon Corporation, developed Exxon’s extensive fee acreage into an award-winning residential community. Instead of allowing builders to carve up their property, FDC created multiple income villages around schools, community centers, churches, and businesses. Miles of greenbelt trails for bikers and runners zigzag through the villages. My children swam on the village summer swim team, played in the community parks, and walked to the nearby elementary school. The deed restrictions were strictly enforced which kept the community clean and safe. When one drove into the ‘Livable Forest,’ the environment pleasantly changed into tree-lined streets with stately suburban homes.
After moving into our Kingwood home, we decided to search for a church to join. The closest Presbyterian church was 20 minutes south of Kingwood in the town of Humble. We attended their services in a bank building that served as a temporary church. The church had amicably voted to split between two nearby suburbs, Kingwood and Atascocita, because that was where rapid growth was occurring. Both suburbs planned to build new churches on land previously purchased. We were excited to be part of a church building project. Later, the Kingwood members rented a Kingwood office and sold the Humble bank building.
While church leaders worked on the new church building, we held services at an elementary school. Members arrived before church services to set up portable chairs, greet people, and pass out bulletins. Our church membership grew rapidly once we established Kingwood church services and announced plans for the new building. Members pledged extra money towards a three-year building fund campaign. We held a ground-breaking ceremony, then later watched the sanctuary and fellowship hall being built. Our first Sunday service in the new sanctuary was filled with joyful worshippers during the dedication. During my 16 years of Presbyterian membership, the Kingwood church had two additional fundraising campaigns to expand the church building. Buildings require constant capital and operational funds, a reality that never ceases until the building is demolished.
During my recent Friendship Tour to the Holy Land, our group visited many churches. I enjoy touring churches for both their architectural beauty and local history. Having toured hundreds of churches and cathedrals in many countries, I can quickly identify the basic architectural design which normally dates the building. Inside, I look for clues about the regional history based on wall hangings (paintings, banners, flags, and sculptures), altars, chapels, tombs, and carvings. Just a walk-through Westminster Abbey in London will give one a lesson in English history.
However much I have enjoyed church buildings, there are times when I wished there would not be a church building. Here are some examples from my Holy Land tour. The Church of the Nativity is located over the presumed site where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The original Byzantine church was first built in the 4th century shortly after Constantine the Great declared Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. It is shared by several Christian denominations who observe strict rules to reduce infighting (one can only wonder what Jesus would have said about this!).
Before our visit, we toured Shepherd’s Field, a network of caves that protected sheep from predators. I experienced deep emotions while viewing the open land between the Bethlehem hills. I could envision shepherds tending their sheep and the Holy Family walking across the land. However, within the Church of the Nativity, I felt only remorse. A silver star on the floor of a small ornate room marked where Jesus was thought to be born. Instead of elation, I felt depression. Building this church covered the holy ground and took away all connection to the historical setting. What remained was humanistic clutter and religious bickering over property that was no longer visible.
The same can be said when one tours the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, outside the old city walls of Jerusalem, where Jesus was thought to be crucified. Five denominations share and fight over this church site dating back to the 4thcentury. It is filled with people and ornamental pieces that obliterate any connection with a Roman crucifixion site. However, nearby at the Garden of Gethsemane, there are still olive trees within a small garden next to the Church of All Nations. One can easily imagine Jesus walking through the east gate and stopping to pray in this olive grove.
When we took a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee where Jesus did most of his ministry, I was again feeling spiritually connected; this freshwater lake still retains its first century vistas. Although not impossible and most likely attempted, it would be difficult to place a church on this lake. I am thankful that Christians have left this spiritual setting alone. On the shores, we toured the Church of the Multiplication located in Tabgha. This is supposedly where Jesus fed the crowds with only two fishes and five loaves of bread. The church there, while historic and filled with beautiful mosaics, destroys the actual setting where this miracle took place as reported in all four gospels. One cannot see the pastoral landscape since it is covered by a church.
Luckily, there is another nearby biblical site that is still natural because it was a former Roman site. Jesus took his disciples a day’s walk to Caesarea Philippi, located in northern Israel near Syria. This is the source of the Jordan River and a natural cave where the worship of the Greek god Pan took place. It was here that Jesus asked his disciples “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” … Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Our guide speculated that Jesus came to this Roman city to ask his controversial question without being overheard by Jews. Juxtaposed to a pagan temple, the disciples had to make a transformational decision: pagan or Jesus. It was Peter who first made the leap of faith. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:13–18, NRSV)
Jesus spoke about building a church on “this rock,” but Jesus did not mean a physical church; he meant a community of faith. Buildings rise and fall. They need constant maintenance and financial resources. Some churches can even cause discord. The church that Jesus is building is eternal, occupied by the faithful who call Jesus Lord. Jesus’ church doesn’t cover up holy sites. Rather, it makes sites holy.