Why Rebuild?

given on July 18, 2010

Every time I walk into the Fellowship Hall, I wonder about the history of the church. . . .

[Church 1:  Why did this church rebuild after its fire in the early 1920s?  Why did the church add the fellowship hall in 1963?]

{Church 2:  Lately, my eye keeps looking at this small statue of a cherub/angel-like shepherd.  How come that is the one small token that survived the fire?  Why did the church rebuild after the fire in 2000?  What made them decide a new building was needed?}

Rebuilding was not an easy chore.  It took many hours of study and then labor.  Still a decision was made to rebuild, and there had to be a reason a rural church made such a commitment.  Was it to do with pride?  Was it to do with insurance?  Was it to meet a community need?  Was it just to have a place to worship?  Was it a place to put God’s love into action?  {Was it to continue to be shepherds in the community?}

I keep listening to the stories of the way it used to be around the church.  The number of kids who were in Sunday School and Bible School certainly is impressive.  The churches put on dinners for fundraisers and fellowship. The weddings are fondly remembered, and usually were followed with baptisms.  Of course there are the more difficult times of loss and the family meals that followed the funerals.  Not all memories can be positive, but all of them together create mosaics of grace, which has extended even beyond just one century.

Our society has continued to protect and to support the local churches and have grandfathered in construction projects and ignored building codes at times because the church building is honored by its purpose—to serve God and community.  True, many scout dens serve God and country in church facilities, but the reach extends to even more than the local scouts in a community.  The churches have become archeological features in communities whether major cities or small hamlets.  The towns were built around the churches, which always clustered together.

Still as we are well established in the 21st century, the look of a community has changed dramatically.  Often the first churches of many metropolitan areas are now in derelict conditions and/or in the run-down areas of urban blight.  The purpose of the churches in those cases is often lost.  The churches in those circumstances no longer serve God nor the community.  At best businesses have bought them and redefined their purpose.  At the worst, cities have condemned the buildings and are torn down.

In rural communities, the small churches were established as central features in the communities.  The farms were laid out in their 120-acre plots; families may have homesteaded the area and claimed three or four sections.  Farming took hard labor so families were large, especially if the family had more than one section.

This is the story of my own family.  The Winters and the Wehrmans came to the United States in mid-1800s.  They settled in an area west of Troy and northeast of Montgomery City.  They owned land, had families of 10 or more kids, married between the two families and expanded the land ownership into Montgomery County near Buell.  With them came their Methodist and German heritage.  The church in Truxton, Mt. Zion UMC, was a focal point even the site for the German school in the area, which met after the regular school.  When the family expanded farther west in Montgomery County, they supported another church in Buell.

This is a long introduction into the primary question for today:  Why did the members rebuild or remodel the church in our community?  We are no longer bound by living circumstances to attend the church closest to us.  Transportation and roads have removed that reason.  Families are no longer all attending the same church each and every Sunday nor are they as large as they once were.  Our society has become so mobile that we now “shop” for churches rather than worry about going to our “family” church.

So, why rebuild?  Why improve or even maintain the small, rural churches of our communities?  The answer, hopefully, should be the same that it always has been—to serve God and community.  All the effort to maintain these churches, to rebuild after fires, to add on to the facility to meet the changes in our community are all done in order to make sure that God’s word is available to those who want to hear.  The work is done to make sure that God’s love goes into action in the community around it.  Sometimes the action brings the community into the building; sometimes the members go out to serve.

John Wesley did not have a church building; he began his ministry in America riding from one location to another.  The circuit riders reached out to the small communities in order to spread God’s word.  In the process, the denomination developed through its purpose to serve all that they could in all the ways that they could (and the saying continues).   Wesley saw two categories of works to develop grace:  works of piety and works of mercy.

The works of piety have to do with personal growth in faith.  They are the various practices that he identified as necessary to maintain and grow spiritually.  The works of mercy, though, are actions that take God’s love and move it into action.  The works of mercy are “doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God.” (Weems, Lovett Jr., John Wesley’s Message Today.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press; c.1982. pp. 51-52)

Weems continues to define the works of mercy:

“Doing no harm” meant avoiding evil of every kind, . . . including taking the name of God in vain, profaning the day of the Lord, using or selling liquor, fighting, quarreling, practicing usury (more commonly known as loan sharking today), spending time in unprofitable conversations, and wearing gold or costly apparel.

“Doing good” meant seizing every opportunity to do good in every possible way.  Giving food to the hungry and clothing to the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and instructing all whom one encounters. . .

“Attending upon all the ordinances of God” meant the public worship of God, the ministry of the word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, Bible study, and fasting. . .

another words, the works of piety.

How does an individual manage to meet Wesley’s expectations?  How about a church congregation?  Today, the building is the hub from which the members of church can serve.  This does not exclude a member from demonstrating works of piety independently, but the church’s building can provide a site from which grace is doled out.

When a church makes the decision and the commitment to rebuild after a fire or remodel or add on to an existing church, the congregation says yes to Wesley’s practices.  The church not only provides a sacred space in which to worship as a church family, but it becomes a site from which to share God’s love—we, the people, spread grace outward to the community.

Are we ready to make sure that we are fulfilling our responsibility as Christians to spread grace?  Are we willing to prove why the church was rebuilt/remodeled?  You have been doing it, but today’s community is very different than it was when the first church was built in this community.  Now we have to figure out what is the best way to put God’s love into action right here as well as in the global community.

Weems includes a statement from theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

“It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting our Church is this:  How can we live the Christian life in the modern world?”

He continued to take this concern a bit farther:

Long before Bonhoeffer, John Wesley recognized the high cost of discipleship and sought to fashion a structure within the Christian community providing spiritual growth for persons trying to live the Christian life in the midst of what was for them a new and challenging modern world.

Today, even 20 almost 30 years after Weems published these words, we continue to struggle with finding reasonable, manageable ways to carry out the works of mercy in our 21st century global community.  Does that mean we quit, no.  It means we have to think differently.  We have to realize that the church sits in a community with a variety of concerns; and we can show the community just how easy life is, even today, if we accept God’s love and live as he would want us to live—loving one another.

In the book Acts, the story of Christ’s ministry continues after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down upon the Apostles.  Luke’s narrative is so detailed as he preserves the history and encourages the young Christians to continue God’s work of spreading the word about the New Covenant and Jesus’ ministry on earth.  The story includes how various churches began, who were the new leaders, and how difficult the process was including persecution, imprisonment, and simply disinterest and fear.

Included in Acts is the story of Saul’s conversion into Paul, the early church’s most dramatic missionary.  In Acts 15, Barnabus and Paul were telling about Christ’s and the Apostles’ ministry.  One of the concerns at that time was who they needed to reach because many Jews were not accepting the New Covenant and Gentiles were becoming Christians.  Young Christians needed help knowing how to carry on spreading the word.  In the New International Version of the Bible, Luke reports that James answered with these words:

13When they finished, James spoke up: “Brothers, listen to me. 14Simon has described to us how God at first showed his concern by taking from the Gentiles a people for himself. 15The words of the prophets are in agreement with this, as it is written:
16” ‘After this I will return
and rebuild David’s fallen tent.
Its ruins I will rebuild,
and I will restore it,
17that the remnant of men may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who bear my name,
says the Lord, who does these things’
18that have been known for ages.

19“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God . . .

James continues with more instructions and we must be careful not to read the Bible out of context, but those few verses clearly provide burned out churches with a purpose to rebuild.

As Luke continues to record the history of Paul’s ministry, the book of Acts reads like a timeline following the journey through the Mid-Eastern world.  Paul was challenged, chased, and threatened, but his purpose was to spread the word into the communities.  In Acts 20, he tells the Ephesians it is time for him to move on to another community.  He qualifies his work there and issues them a challenge:

28Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood.

Are we able to be shepherds?  Are we able to continue serving the community regardless of the challenges it presents?  I know that those here have heard God speak.  I know that the testimony of rebuilding and improving the churches declares to the community the commitment to serve in God’s name.

Why rebuild?  Churches rebuild, remodel, and add on in order to continue to do God’s work.  We share God’s grace by our service, by our presence, and by the use of a building.  We can be shepherds in our community even when challenged by those outside and by those inside the church.  We have a purpose; we simply need to put God’s love, his grace, into action.

Dear Heavenly Father,

You are our shepherd.  You have loved us since our birth.  You have wrapped us in your love and taught us what we are to do.  You have assigned us our responsibility so that others may know your love, too.  Guide us as we work to find ways of sharing your love in our community right here and in the global community.  Let us rebuild your church with the help of the Holy Spirit, with the model of Jesus and his disciples, and with your love.         –Amen

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