It was funny hearing someone British describe a visit to my Messianic fellowship back home in Israel.
“It was just an ordinary building, it didn’t look like a church at all, just a building right in the middle of an industrial estate.”
Ok, I do know what she meant and I understand where she’s coming from – in British culture there is this concept of what a church building normally looks like, and we humans generally tend to look at the world through the lens of our own culture, so it was quite a natural reaction. It was just funny to me to hear it, because to me it’s so obvious that the building where a congregation meets for worship doesn’t have to look special in order to perform its function. Even here in Britain I’ve been to Christian worship meetings held in all sorts of non-church-shaped buildings: some fellowships hold their weekly meetings at a school (since the premises aren’t in normal use on a Sunday); at least one church I’ve visited uses a converted warehouse; and then there was the time when I lived near Oxford and went to the Jesus Army meetings held on Sunday evenings at a café – again, they were able to hire the premises for Sunday evening as it was outside the normal opening hours.
And in the context of Israeli culture, it’s not just that we don’t need the building to be church-shaped, it’s that a church-shaped building would put many people off. Our history is too full of anti-Jewish persecution in the name of the church for us to easily feel at home in a place that reminds us of that. That history of persecution means that the cross itself – a symbol which should remind people of how much God loves them – is anathema, because it was the symbol used by people who tortured and murdered us in the name of their religion. Sure, those people were very badly mistaken – Jesus never commanded anyone to go murder and torture anyone, let alone his own people! – but the damage has been done, and it goes very deep. When I was a kid at school, in arithmetic lessons we learned to draw an Israeli version of the plus sign – it’s like half a normal plus sign, with the bottom half missing: ˔ – that’s how strong this feeling is. So a church-shaped building just wouldn’t work for us.
Actually, in the context of Israeli culture, what is more relevant to point out is that our fellowship meets in a building that doesn’t look like a synagogue. I know there are Messianic Jewish fellowships in other countries that do use a synagogue style for their buildings and/or for their worship, which we don’t. I think (I don’t know for certain – I’ve never asked anyone about the whys and wherefores) this is, again, a cultural issue – in Israel there’s a huge religious/secular divide, and for people who come from the secular majority (like me), synagogues are pretty alien. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I attended a synagogue service, and I didn’t have close contact with people who went to synagogue regularly. It’s not an environment that I’d personally feel at home in.
So it kind of makes sense for us to use a neutral kind of building, with nothing to distinguish it apart from what happens inside it. And isn’t that how it was in the beginning, when the church just started out? People met in someone’s house, not in some special place. Sure, when the congregation grows there’s a need to find a bigger place to meet, but I don’t see any biblical grounds for the idea that it needs to be a place that’s been built specially or consecrated by a special prayer or designed in a certain way. Church isn’t a building, it’s a group of people, and it’s us who are consecrated by God for his service.