A few week’s back, I posted about an article released by Fox News. These opening lines give a window into the thrust of the whole article:
They see it as their Christian duty. But others disagree, saying it extends the hand of fellowship where it was never intended to go.
Two Protestant churches are taking some heat from critics for opening their church buildings to Muslims needing places to worship because their own facilities were either too small, or under construction.
With this post, I received quite a few comments on both my blog and Facebook, different folk heralding different sides of the issue for varying reasons. At the time, I reserved most of my thoughts for a later date, wanting to take some time to read the comments of others.
Hence, this article is my response to the issue. So, what are my personal thoughts?
Well, let me start out by trying to settle somewhere in the middle, at least for now. Therefore, I would say – It all depends.
The answers to these questions are not always black and white, though we would like them to be, and try and make them seem so. Even quoting a couple of Bible passages does not necessarily settle an issue. Think about the centuries of theological discussion and debate.
What I do note is that, in the current and forthcoming generation, many practical and theological questions are being re-looked at once again. None of these issues are new in and of themselves. To think so is a little naive. As one wise man said, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’
But, as with each generation and culture, there is a call to consider how to live as followers of Christ in our particular culture and generation. Truly, there are solid, eternal truths. The kingdom of God is unshakable (Heb 12:28). But we as finite human beings are not, noting that we have not yet reached the goal expressed in passages like Eph 4:13 – unity in the faith and knowledge of Jesus and maturity.
And so, as with gender roles or positions on justification or any other assortment of issues, we find ourselves trying to grasp how we can faithfully follow Jesus as we engage with and interact with those of other faiths and religions. This is not just for the theologically unsound. Faithful followers of Jesus like you and I are constantly engaged with such. And I think that, as we do so with humility and relational accountability, this is a very noble aspiration.
To ask such a question, to even ponder allowing Muslims or Mormons or Hindus to utilise our buildings, well, that can truly be a bit daunting for some. Putting myself in such a position, if I am honest, it can feel that way for me as well. But I don’t think it has to be. One thing I have learned from Scripture, especially in the wisdom and poetic portions of the Old Testament, is that questions are ok. We will never have all the answers, and we should expect such knowing this walk with Christ is a walk of faith.
So, my answer still stands as this – It all depends.
But let me first share two points as to why I don’t believe that allowing Muslims to utilise our buildings is wrong in and of itself, and then I will come back to why I believe it all depends.
1) The nature of church
I adamantly believe that a proper foundation of understanding church is that it is first and foremost about the people of God. When we say the word church, at least from a biblical background (Greek ekklesia), the overwhelming evidence is that this is about God’s people, the body of Christ. It is not foremost about an institution, day of the week, or place we go. Thus, in its essence, church is not about the building. Christ did not give himself up for a building, but rather for a bride (Eph 5:25-27).
True, most of us meet in buildings. And to have such is a blessing. Whether we are part of a more structured, liturgical background or a more free, open background (none of these terms are used negatively-positively), to have a building can be a blessing.
My local church has one. It is a blessing to have a large meeting hall with four classrooms and two offices. I am glad I can have a place of study, prayer, and base from which our local church can outwork the ministry God has given us. But it is by no means essential. Sometimes I wonder if we need to become more mobile, not to mention the prospect of redirecting some funds towards mission rather than a larger rental sum. But at this point, we are convinced it is good to have the building, blue carpet and all.
But if the building goes up in flames or simply vanishes, the church can and should get on with being the church regardless. And that is why I also ponder becoming more mobile – to see the church truly have to rise up and be the church without a base of operation.
I do recognise that some church traditions strongly emphasise the importance of sacred space. I respect that. I have no problems with high-church, liturgical focus. Such can call us to a deeper, more thoughtful and enriched walk in life.
But to allow Muslims to utilise our buildings does not necessarily bring spiritual cooties to invade our building, nor the reality of demons. It could. But, as a whole, this is few and far between. And this is where leadership needs to be discerning, wise, prayerful and give space to listen to God. And a team of leaders will also provide the relational accountability needed.
So, let us not get so wrapped up in arguing, ‘This is a church. It is not to be used for non-believers.’ The reality is that you cannot go to church – it’s impossible. Buildings are not churches, at least if we want to look at this from the foundation of Scriptural teaching. Jesus gave his life for a bride, for people, not a building.
And let us not forget about all the people who use community centres, town halls, school gymnasiums, community theatres, etc, to gather in. How many Muslims, or agnostics and atheists, head through those doors during the week?
For quite a few decades now, the church has understood that we can meet ‘out there’. And that might just be the best call in reaching our community. This leads me to my second and final point.
2) The salt and light aspect
No Christian denies the fact that we are called to salt and light. But many times, we can enclose ourselves in our buildings, which leaves us losing some of our saltiness and putting some of our light under the proverbial bushel. That is very far from the church Jesus imagined and gave himself for.
But the idea of our buildings being open to the community at large, what an amazing opportunity. Now because they are marked as ‘churches’, many of the people in our communities will not come through the doors. And that is definitely my experience in western Europe. But I won’t walk down rethinking this question, as to not get too far off focus.
But opening our buildings could be a very profitable decision. Of course, this is again where wisdom is called for, wisely inquiring of the group’s intentions and activities, but definitely not from a fearful state of paranoia. Shepherds are called to care for and protect, but not out of fear.
Still, the interaction that could follow in the months and years to come, the conversations, the dialogue, the testimony of Jesus, living as new creations as we interact with the people. What an opportunity!!
But here is the kicker for me – When have we ever heard of Muslims asking to use church buildings?!!
Are you kidding me?!! I don’t think this has ever happened in the history of the human race. NEVER!! And all of a sudden, the inquiry happens. Could this be history in the making, Christians and Muslims utilising the same building in peace and harmony?
Listen, I am not advocating watering down anything. I am not advocating that we open up to the possibility that Mohammed is the true prophet of God. But I also don’t advocate being gospel gun-slingers, ready to pounce on everyone as our evangelism project.
I believe that, if we enter the situation with the correct perspective of being salt and light, sharing the love of Jesus, looking for opportunities to build relationships that we might share the good news of Jesus, then this could be a healthy opportunity. If all somebody really wants is to be nice, well, I will personally allow them to simply be nice. But I would hope we would see it as an opportunity to heal centuries of animosity and anger, hear one another, share conversations and possibly meals with one another. Who knows? No, not necessarily having a joint service where it’s all mish-mash and we pray to a vague God. But real, purposeful, authentic relationship.
I cannot even imagine how this happened. I’m still kind of hit in the stomach that a couple of Muslim groups asked to use the buildings of these two churches. Could God be doing something, something scandalous here, to open the door to move past a veil that has existed now for a millennium and a half? I’d be spending a lot of time asking God, listening to Him, for this is not your usual interaction between Muslims and Christians.
For those who want to play the conspiracy card that these Muslims might be trying to slowly work their way in to bring about sharia law – Well, again, it could be. And this is why we need discerning, prayerful, accountable leaders. But I would suppose the secret motive thing is few and far between. Again, let us also guard against fear and paranoia.
So, this is where I sign-off with my main answer that I began with – It all depends. It really does all depend.
I think each situation has to be considered individually. Though, as I recognised earlier that we would like there to be a pat answer to every situation, there really isn’t. Each local church needs to consider different things in different contexts. What might be good for my local church in Brussels, Belgium, will not be good for someone else’s in Dakar, Senegal. What might be good for a church in Chicago, Illinois, might not be good for one in Budapest, Hungary.
And so each church, led by its local leadership, needs to be in prayer, with wisdom, seeking God, in authentic relationship with one another, and with those leaders in the wider body of Christ. And as we do, I believe God will lead us, communicate to us, and guide us into what needs to take place, all that His kingdom might come and His will might be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Therefore, though I am not actually dead-centre in the middle on this issue, I would still say that it all depends. But I cannot stand up saying an all out, ‘No,’ to this opportunity. Nor can I simply say, ‘Yes,’ and be done with it. But I can say that this could truly be an opportunity of God Himself, but we need to listen to Him and to those in the church with whom we walk.