We stepped inside and beauty stirred my heart. Worship seemed the only appropriate response. It was clear that an artist had spent months, even years, with tools that chiselled, adorned, and beautified. Each detail, lovingly and carefully carved. In that room, the light glimmered and shone, reflecting the beauty of His handiwork.
The room I'm speaking of was a school gymnasium.
This past Sunday my husband was guest preaching at a church in Toronto that meets in a school, and their corporate worship service is held in the gym. This gym is a large, light room that is clean and pleasant with large windows lining both sides. It is a simple room that would easily go unnoticed.
But inside that unadorned room was the most exquisite church: people of worship and prayer, people honest about sin, people pleading for God’s mercy, people proclaiming God’s glory, people fellowshipping in His grace. Breathtaking! Yes, I stepped into that church and my heart quickened from the beauty around me—the beauty of God’s holy people.
Later that same day, by pure (sovereign) coincidence, Justin and the kids and I took the subway downtown and found ourselves wandering into one of Toronto’s historic cathedrals. Though different, beauty was in that place too. The “sanctuary” was empty, and our footsteps, light as they were, seemed to disrupt a quiet awe. Magnificent was the handiwork of the artists: ornate woodwork, detailed stained glass, majestic vaulted ceilings. There was a sense of God’s glory in that place too, but not because it was a steepled building and not because we were in a “sanctuary” and not because of anything intrinsically holy in the space. Rather, the Creator’s glory was reflected by the creative work of artists and architects.
As we left, Justin and I reflected upon the clarity of the contrast. That morning we had gathered in a school gymnasium with other Christians and it had truly been a hallowed place, for we had been with God’s people, in God’s presence, hearing God’s word proclaimed. By contrast, that evening we’d been in a majestic cathedral that was nothing more than a building. A stunningly beautiful building, sure. It was even a building with a design and beauty that reflected the Creator. But it was just a building.
It is true, then, that a beautiful church makes a holy church but only in as much as the men and women of the church are clothed in the beautiful garments of Christ’s righteousness.
The church is not a gathering of holy stones but a gathering of holy people.
Vivid contrast has a way of sharpening the picture of even the clearest biblical truths. In the morning, a school gymnasium overflowing with the church. In the evening, a majestic cathedral, empty, long departed from the truth.
Justin and I continued walking and, as we looked at old buildings and considered the contrast of the day, we were reminded of a simple but precious truth: God is growing His kingdom through people, not through structures. Though a physical building is a blessing to any local church and it would be reason to rejoice if all the grand old steepled buildings of Toronto were filled with God’s people, it still wouldn’t make the building themselves any more sacred, nor would it make God’s kingdom any more powerful.
The cathedrals of the past are beautiful and, for the sake of art and history, ought to be preserved for generations to come. Inside their walls we feel a quiet reverence because the creative beauty of such places reflects the glory of the Creator God. But what grace that as new covenant Christians, the only sanctuary needed in order to worship is the sanctuary that God Himself creates in the hearts of His people.