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The church is the people, not the building.

This old adage has been repeated so often it hardly seems worth saying any more.  But, like all good clichés, it gets an outing on a pretty regular basis.  Someone said it at my church on Sunday.  And I realised it isn't true.

Or if it is, we no longer attend the same church that we stepped into almost two years ago.  We started going there in December 2009, when it met on Saturday nights and we were childless and free.  By the time Toby's baby shower came around in October 2010, almost all the people we'd initially got to know had left.  Half a year later, when the founding pastor moved back to Canada and a new minister took over, very few of those who had signed Toby's baby book for us were still around.  Not only the congregation but also the leadership had changed completely, twice.

Yet the building is still there, and still pretty much the same.  Whatever else has changed, there is still a sense of calling to that particular place.  What does this mean, and how does it affect how we do church as such a changeable congregation?

Most church plants start with a group of people.  They meet in a house, a coffee shop, a rented school.  Later, as the group grows, they may start to think about buying a property and calling it a church.  By then, the church-as-people is already well established.  They have been through a few struggles, lost some people, gained some people, and hammered out what they are there for.

Through a combination of circumstances, my church plant came at things backwards.  It was gifted with a building while the fledgling congregation was still small and finding its wings.  The people part of the church is still working out who it is and what it is there for.  But meanwhile, the building is there, designated as a house of prayer.  Go and open the heavy oak door to a small stone English country church.  As you step over the threshold, your footsteps will become quieter and your voice will hush, and your eyes will lift to the stained glass that depicts the glory of God.  The centuries of Morning and Evening Prayer whisper in your ear and a peacefulness comes into your heart.  All this without another person present.  The building itself holds the atmosphere of holiness, and although ours is so much newer, it too is acquiring that hint of peace.  Perhaps this is our first calling: to so worship and so pray in that building, that whoever enters it is moved to recognise the presence of God.

Downtown Fort Worth is not the gritty urban setting that might come to mind when you hear the words "city centre church".  The streets are clean and spacious, the bars and restaurants are generally free of drunken yobs, and the condos in the tower blocks sell for a million dollars.  If there is a ministry here, it is to sophisticated urbanites who quite probably regard churches as outdated, inflexible and irrelevant.

But they drink coffee.  Coffee shops are not outdated, inflexible and irrelevant.  They're where you go to deepen relationships, hear live music, and discuss the meaning of life over a quick meal.  So nothing like church, right?  Well, this building happens to be half coffee shop, half church.  And maybe the two halves have more in common than either the churchgoers or the non-churchgoers might think.  So perhaps this is our second calling: to throw open the doors between the two; to discuss God in the coffee shop and the latest news in the church.

So is the church the people, not the building?  What do you think?

'Mister,' Anna took his hand and pulled him to the wall, 'mister, is the Thames the water, or the hole it goes in?'
The policeman looked at her for a moment and then replied, 'The water, of course. You don't have a river without water.'
'Oh,' said Anna, 'that's funny, that is, 'cos when it rains it ain't the Thames but when it runs into the hole it is the Thames. Why is that, mister? Why?'
I grabbed Anna's hand and led her away. 'Nice work, Tich, nice work. A good bit of thinking, all that Thames stuff.'
'Oh,' murmured Anna, 'but when do you, Fynn? When do you start calling it the Thames and when do you stop calling it the Thames? Do you have a mark? Do you, Fynn?'
From Mister God This Is Anna, by Fynn

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