I have not been back to my alma mater’s campus in 13 years. The year I graduated college, the school was gifted more land and some buildings from a closed plant and since my graduation the campus size has grown to more than twice its original size. Buildings have changed functions and many have been remodeled and renamed. In talking with a few alumni today, including family members, the first thing everyone said was “My, how it has changed,” and expressed some disappointment. As I walked around campus and recalled some wonderful memories, I realized that most of the greatest memories were not specifically about the place but about the people I was with at the time, friends that I have kept in touch with as well as friends who have slipped away. Professors who have since retired and staff who have moved on—all the relationships I made in the four years I was there. It is not the same, but the experiences and memories will stay with me.
I also visited the church I attended during my four years of college. It, too, has changed—there was a building expansion and remodel after I graduated. The sanctuary has added a stage and things have been moved around. It is different. Many of the people I knew have passed on, but there are still familiar names.
We all know we have mistaken the church for the building, and we continue to do so in mistaking the church for the institution. People complain about change. Things are different. They aren’t how they used to be. The truth is, they never will be the same, things are always changing, and most of the time, things were never exactly the way we remembered them, anyway.
In order for the church to truly be transformed—or be the church, the body of Christ that Paul experienced—we have to get away from building and institutional identity. The church is the ecclesia, the gathering of people. It is not the building. It is not the four-board structure with a moderator. It is not the Pastor’s Bible Study on Sunday morning. It is not the Fellowship Hall or the kitchen or the sanctuary. Church happens in those places, but they are not the church.
In order for the church to continue to exist we must move away from this mistaken identity. Otherwise we will always complain about things changing, especially when our roles within the institutions change and the building is changed.
Relationships, however, are things that are always changing every time we interact with someone. Friendships change and grow, sometimes they grow apart. Families change and grow. We expect this. We expect people to grow up and grow old. We expect friendships to change and strain and grow. We take this for granted. At times we are surprised when a friendship grows cold or a relationship ceases, but I don’t know anyone who expects their relationships to always stay the same. We know that people change and grow. However, we have put this expectation on our churches to stay the same.
Our relationship with God changes and grows. We all experience transformation in relationship with Christ and do not expect to remain the same after we encounter God. We hope to experience lifelong growth with God in our journey of faith. But again, we put this expectation on our churches, to stay the same.
It is time to for us to let go of our identity as a place or a particular structure. We are the church, ecclesia, the gathering of people. When we remember this, we know that change will always come, and that it is welcome, it is familiar, and it is what is necessary for us to continue to grow. Otherwise, if we remain committed to keeping our identity as a structure or building, we will continue to be disappointed, continue to sigh when something new happens, and continue to wish we could go back in time to the way things used to be. We can be stuck, or we can grow.