The Church Has Left the Building

By Lisa Sharon Harper

I moved into my apartment in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., three years ago with dreams of engaging in the community life of my building. I dreamed of starting a garden out in front of the building. I dreamed of baking cookies and taking them around to my neighbors to introduce myself. I dreamed of having them over for dinner or lunch. I didn’t do any of it.

When I was brutally honest with myself, I had to admit the primary thing holding me back was fear. Fear of being hacked to pieces in my apartment by a crazy neighbor. Fear of being overwhelmed by a needy neighbor. Fear that my cookies would be rejected because the neighbors would fear that I’d laced them with cyanide.

It wasn’t always this way for me. I served as a staff member for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship for 10 years. The first four were spent in the dorms of UCLA building missional communities (before the term was popular). As a community, the students served their neighbors in practical ways. They vacuumed their neighbors dorm rooms, took out their trash, led game nights on dorm floors, you name it. We did it.

But the most impactful moment of missional community I ever experienced was when a black woman was kicked down a flight of stairs in the middle of campus, called a n—-r, and told “We don’t want you here.”

The Intervarsity community processed the incident internally. Students had the opportunity to see and confront their apathy toward the incident. Students of color shared how that apathy revealed a rift in their friendships with white and Asian-American students. Students engaged and repented of their apathy.

The next day, the Intervarsity community joined a march through the campus led by the Black Student Union and La Raza, and other ethnic groups while a multiethnic core of Intervarsity leaders camped out in the UCLA president’s office until he granted them a meeting.

In the past, we had considered our spiritual realm of responsibility to be our fellowship, but we had begun to realize our parish (the whole campus) was our spiritual community. So, we joined campus organizations, worked in the dorms, and stood in solidarity with the most vulnerable students on campus.

What would this kind of missional engagement look like for local churches?

Perhaps it would mean a shift from “The church has left the building Sundays” to “The church doesn’t own a building at all.” The church ministers in the community. The church stands in solidarity with the struggles of the vulnerable there. The church seeks ways to partner with their neighbors in their struggles.

One extremely practical way for the church to leave the building right now would be to begin to engage the issues of racial inequity highlighted by the incidents surrounding the shooting death of Michael Brown. What would it look like for churches to build friendships within black communities, to sit with families who weep for lost loved ones, to stand with communities who dare to use their voices to declare their humanity in the face of those who deny it?

I love the model of the Acts church. We often focus on the fact that they met and broke bread and sang songs, served, and shared resources in the temple. But we must remember the temple was not a church building. They didn’t have a church building. They had house gatherings. The temple was their mission field. The temple was the seat of power that had just manipulated the Roman Empire to crucify Jesus. It was full of oppressed people. And in the days of Pentecost it was full of people from every nation who were hungry to know God. The practice of “church” took place without a building.

Lisa Sharon Harper is Senior Director of Mobilizing for Sojourners and co-author of Forgive Us: Confessions of a Compromised Faith– forthcoming September 2014, Zondervan.


4 thoughts on “The Church Has Left the Building

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  1. I served as Campus Pastor for six years at Middle Tennessee State University (1987-1993), and celebrated being with students in the “church without a building”, while in university ministry setting. Students in the South were tired of traditional church building based ministry, and were delighted to discover genuine loving community in Christ apart from a church building. All that being said, we still met weekly in a building, just as the early church also meet weekly in buildings, including in the temple and in house churches as clearly articulated by Luke in Acts 2 and 4. In our use of language today, we too often equate “Church” with buildings, rather than with a community of people. A number of years ago, I decided to shift my language to always say “church building” when I was going to the building, but speak of the Church when I was gathering with other fellow followers of Jesus regardless of what physical structure we were meeting within. Thanks for the well written reminder that we are living stones gathered by Jesus into holy living architecture of the new Temple of God, the community of faith, even when we gather inside buildings some people call “church”. Question to you: What are you thoughts about the e-Church, or cyber-Church? Can we be a Church without even meeting face to face, but only meeting online, via electronic devices? I am skeptical of this way of thinking, and prefer the pheromone face-to-face church.

    1. HI David!
      I’m so sorry for taking so incredibly long to write back. No excuses–just an apology. 🙂
      Thank you, too, for your thoughtful reflections in response. Your college ministry days sound full of fruitful community. I think, though it wasn’t an actual church body, your group did “do church” with one another. And it was beautiful. I’m actually not a huge fan of the cyber-church idea. If we understand the church to not only be an incorporated body with doctrines and heirarchy, but rather to be “the church” at large, well, then, yeah. It is completely possible for the body of Christ to be held together virtually over large distances through social platforms like FB, Twitter, Pinterest, and others. BUT in my experience it’s nearly impossible to achieve the depth of community and connection that is possible through face to face contact, in the interwebs. 🙂 There must be some place where the saints touch.

  2. LIsa, thanks for this reflection. I sometimes flinch at the idea that the church isn’t being the church if it’s worshiping God together with other believers…that somehow worship is a “less-than” version of church. Yet your invitation to “to stand with communities who dare to use their voices to declare their humanity in the face of those who deny it” feels less like a critique of the body of believers and more like a call to be the church in all the very best ways Jesus intended. Thank you.

  3. Lisa, I appreciate your challenge to confront ongoing injustice and to mourn with those who mourn. The Church must engage complicated issues – lamenting within the walls of the church building and on the streets.

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