Here we are at our first service of the New Year at Penny Road Elementary. Apologies to those who left before this picture!
During this presidential race, it is only fitting that we began this year worshipping at PRES. PRES is where we are ‘hanging our hats’ for now, and our hope is that the schools will become our home for some time. We are quite happy with this new location and so far all parties involved have been very accommodating.
The process to meet at PRES has been a long one. Because of the amount of rentals used in Wake County Schools, Wake County hires a for-profit agency to manage all rentals. Every space is accounted for in a rental including the number of electric plugs used. We can use up to 5. We rent the lobby, two classrooms, and the multipurpose room. Each space has a two-hour minimum rental fee. The school is opened and closed by one of two teachers who work at PRES. Our access time is from 9:40-12:40. We pay for this person’s time from 9:10-1:10.
I share all this information because the details of renting a facility are reminders that we are becoming more organized. A church needs to balance between organism and organization. It needs this balance because I have had to relearn the importance of location. Whether that be rental or ownership, the ‘space’ is a community of brothers and sisters in Christ.
When we first moved to Raleigh 3 years ago, I struck up a relationship with a thoughtful Christian architect who is working on writing a book on church architecture. I had the privilege of sitting down regularly with him to discuss theology, church, and place. Moving to the suburbs of Raleigh has hampered our ability to meet more regularly, but some of our conversations still ring true for me as we continue to plant a church. For example, one particularly poetic and powerful line he penned continues to stick with me: the envelope is just as important as the letter. In other words, how the recipient receives the letter is just as important because, without the envelope, the message will not get delivered. The envelope is not the message, but it gets the message out. The envelope released the letter effectively. Without it, the message remains on a piece of paper. The message of the letter remains the most important thing, but without an effective tool to release the message- like an envelope- the message gets lost in the post-office and eventually discarded. No one saw its value.
As my friend writes, “Body and soul, time and place, church people and church building. Book and cover, letter and envelope; it’s part of the definition. Without the envelope it’s just paper and ink, it’s a personal journal entry, it doesn’t serve its purpose; the letter doesn’t reach its addressee.”
Penny Road Elementary is our envelope. It is our method of communicating our message. It is located at the crossroads of three suburbs of Raleigh: Cary, Apex, and Holly Springs. Our envelope communicates the following:
- We are guests in the neighborhood.
- We are temporary.
- We are not established.
- We have needs- people and resources.
- We are available only one day out of the week.
- We are mobile.
The famous Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said that the medium is the message. In other words, how the message is communicated is important. The way we read a hardcover book is different than how we read the same content on an iPad. The medium of paper compared to the medium of a computer screen impacts how our brains receive information. One former communicates stability, presence, and investment. The latter communicates brevity, mobility, and fluidity.
This applies to church buildings. My father spent his first few years of his life just outside of Leyden, The Netherlands. As a child, he attended a huge cathedral with beautifully sculpted vaulted ceilings that instinctively forced your eyes to look up. The pastor would speak from a podium accessible only by a spiraling staircase twisting around a large column. The architecture did not naturally say, “Come to me, for my burden is light”. Rather it communicates, “Thus says the Lord. I speak from on high words of truth.” These cathedrals point to God’s transcendence, His ‘otherliness’, His ‘holiness’, and perhaps even His wrath. It is a challenge for modern buildings to communicate something about God’s transcendence or wrath, but can communicate other important theological concepts like hospitality, community, and the incarnation. Church architecture swings in between the pendulum of God's holiness (transcendence) and God's nearness (immanence). Both forms are important for our communities to see.
The motivation to build a church building varies greatly. These differences are often times preferentially based rooted in theological biases, generations of theological emphases, or denominational expectations. Sometimes a building serves a mere utilitarian purpose. Still, all of them communicate something ontological (that is, something that ‘is’) about our God and that is why it is important that Christians think both thoughtfully, theologically, and contextually about their particular envelope.
For our little church, our current calling is to be incarnate within our communities. By settling in a neighborhood elementary school, we are communicating to the school and to our communities the following:
“We’ve moved into the neighborhood to get to know you. We do not have the resources or people to grow out of this elementary school anytime soon, so we may just need your help. We want to serve you but we also want to learn from you and discover how we can partner together to bless our city. We are borrowing your space, so we will do our best to treat it well. Thank you for it, and we look forward to growing in relationship with you.”
If your church building could speak, what would it say?
If you do not go to church, what do you 'hear' church buildings saying to you?