How should Christians react to previous church buildings being used for other purposes?
The First United Methodist Church of Goshen sat vacant and for sale for years. It was falling apart, desperate for work, and had no prospective buyers on the horizon. That is until Will Keenan purchased the property to renovate it and turn it into a “church for all religions,” a sort of Areopagus (Acts 17) for Cape May County where people can share everything from poetry to art to their own spiritual views.
One reader sent me an article about how the former church, now called St. Babs in honor of Will Keenan’s mother, is decorated for Halloween and no longer being used for its traditional purpose, which had some people frustrated. The reader simply asked, “How should Christians react and respond to this?”
This past Friday, I met with Will for lunch. He explained to me his big picture vision for St. Babs as well as what they have been doing for the Halloween walk. For those who are concerned, the utmost care is being taken to protect the historical integrity of the site and ensure that the gravestones are respected. The walk itself is led by tour guides and is a sort of historical experience coupled with a Halloween vibe.
If you’ve been reading my column over the last year, you know that I hold an orthodox view of the Bible, Christianity and faith. I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father, that his death and resurrection is the means through which we can be forgiven, and that the life we are called to live as followers of Jesus is not a life of religion but a life of faith and obedient following of the commands of Christ.
So, how should I, as an evangelical pastor, respond to what is happening at St. Babs? Or, more specifically, if I were to reword the question: “How should Christians respond when something that was formerly a conservative evangelical church (in this case a Methodist Church) is now being used for purposes that seem to be a change of direction?”
Biblically, we need to realize that there’s nothing special about a building. In the Old Testament, the presence of God settled in the Jewish Temple of Solomon. In the temple, the priests would come to offer sacrifices, hope that they would be heard, and that the presence of God wouldn’t kill them (not quite Raiders of the Lost Ark style) because they were unclean.
When Jesus was crucified, however, the curtain in the temple which separated the most holy place from the rest of the temple was torn from the top to the bottom symbolizing that the presence of God was now available to everyone and had, in a sense, “left the building.” In Acts 2, we learn that the presence of God no longer lives in buildings made by human hands but within God’s followers.
All of this is to say that there’s nothing magical about a church building. God’s presence isn’t in a building, it is in his people. If God’s people gather, they are the church. It can be in a house, on a mouse, in a box or with a fox. It doesn’t really matter. I’m not upset that Will is using a former Methodist Church for his purposes or for his Halloween event because it’s just a building.
Secondly, let us acknowledge that Will is upfront about what he’s trying to do. St. Babs claims to be a church for all religions. Will has every right under the eyes of the law to believe what he wants to believe and tell people what he believes. He can freely invite in pastors, imams, spiritual gurus and anyone else who has a voice. I have the same right, and I exercise it freely. Thank God we live in a country where guys like Will and I, who believe different things and have different goals, can both express what we believe. Thank God two guys like Will and I can sit down and have lunch together like decent human beings even though we might not agree on everything under the sun.
So, long story short, how should Christians respond? We should respond with a proper understanding that St Bab’s is just a building like any other. If we get upset about this, we should also get upset about restaurants and condos that exist in previous churches in Cape May. There’s nothing special about the building itself, it is about the people within the building. Revolve meets in a former We Buy Gold and a former Blockbuster. Does that make us less of a church?
We should respond with grace. When we grab pitchforks and march around, we confirm all of the horrible stereotypes that exist about Christians. I love God and God loves Will. God loved Will so much that he died for Will the same way that he died for me. So how will I respond to Will? With love, the same way I am called to respond to all people.