Ministry over masonry

Too often, churches find that their crumbling buildings are standing in the way of their ministry. Where is God at work in this, Eliza Jaremko wonders?

Recently, I was chatting about the future of the church with a ruling elder from a sister congregation. Our congregations are in merger talks, so we were discussing the grief that comes from losing a church and the hope that comes from a new life together. As we dreamed of a new future, she declared: “We’re more concerned about ministry than masonry.” This sentence has touched my heart profoundly as we seek to prayerfully lead our congregations in this precious time.

I asked this elder if I could quote her in this article to which she said, “This was not a pre-planned phrase, it popped out in our conversation. So, I believe it was God. God gets the credit.”

Dear friends in Christ, here is the truth. God has spoken: God cares more about ministry than masonry.

Our deeper question is: do we care more about ministry than masonry? Do we put our energy, intelligence, imagination and love into serving the people of God? Or do we rest our weary souls in the bricks, mortar and stained glass of our worship spaces?

“We’re more concerned about ministry than masonry.”

The answer is, of course: it’s complicated.

I fully believe that every church wishes to care more about the ministry of Christ to this broken and weary world than about the bricks, boilers and roofs of our buildings. At the same time, our sanctuaries offer a respite from the world — a place to pray, worship, sing, preach, fellowship, grow and serve. Our sacred spaces hold the life of the faithful people of God — where we’ve been baptized, confirmed, married and buried. These are the physical places we’ve felt the presence of God, experienced the grace of Christ and felt the movement of the Spirit. It is here that we come to be strengthened week in and week out, year after year.

Ministry happens within our masonry.

And yet, too often in this post-COVID, post-Christendom age, our crumbling masonry can prevent God’s ministry to flourish. In the last few years, the church I serve has been forced to use our time, talents and treasure to address what our insurance carrier terms as “acts of God.” Yet, termite damage to the sanctuary and roof damage to the Sunday School building are really not the way God acts. God acts in ways that inspire, upbuild and serve a community. Yet, so many of our smaller churches are one bad storm away from not affording pastoral leadership or Board of Pensions dues or a hefty electric bill.

I wonder if God is asking us to physically tear down the walls that divide us.

Which leads us to ask: Where is God at work in all of this? What is God up to? I wonder if God is not asking us to adapt who we’ve been. I wonder if God is pushing the church to innovate for what is to come. I wonder if God is asking us to physically tear down the walls that divide us.

Perhaps we might consider: Does our masonry support our ministry? Or does our ministry support our masonry? Are our church buildings the support beams for mission to the community? Or do our support beams only hold a roof over our heads? Are our churches sending us out? Or are our churches keeping us in?

We may not know what the future holds, but we do know this: God does not reside within the structures we build. Christ’s mission continues no matter where it is housed. The Holy Spirit is always on the move. God acts within and without our buildings.

This means, of course, our future is … complicated.

My congregation’s partnership with our sister church is an ongoing (and complicated) venture. As we’ve grown curious and wondered about a future together, we’ve decided to shift our language. Instead of merger and masonry (buildings), we’re building a foundation on mission and members (people). We may not yet know where God is leading the church, but I hope we can crack open our doors enough to find out.