To oversimplify matters, we could say that Christianity’s growth plan over the past few centuries has been, “If you build it, they will come.” That wasn’t all, certainly. With the building, it was necessary to provide pastoral care and community service, and motivate a civic responsibility for the larger community. Within the building, churches provided a valuable place for the community to connect, young people to learn and families to transition into the great moments and movements of human life. Perhaps more than anything else, the church was the place to integrate the rest of life’s activities with the faith that spoke to and for most of the larger society. When we tried to extend our work, to grow, we would plan a way to build a building.
The service the physical church provides is not insignificant. Many in modern society are looking for ways to fill the void of the relatively smaller role that the church plays in contemporary life. In indigenous communities across North America, the weaker presence of the church causes real pain, real hardship. Having said this, it does not mean that our old patterns-building buildings and administrating the religious aspect of life in a civil society-is the way to fill this void. In fact, in our present situation, it seems that trying to resuscitate our old approach, perhaps pursuing the old position of influence, is simply not possible and the attempt might have negative consequences.
As we adjust to our new reality, it is time to reassess the role of the building. We have built some of the most beautiful buildings known to humankind. They still proclaim a cosmology that has the power to inspire and instruct. Each one that we have, insomuch that it contributes to the work of God, should be maintained-never, however, at the expense of the work of God in the world. Further, building should take a backseat to the re-emergence of the heart of the work of God through the church: making disciples.
Our work must focus on making disciples and building the networks capable of supporting them. We should concentrate on maintaining the capacity for the formation, connection and communion of disciples as a matter of first importance. Our lack of capacity to build or even maintain buildings has limited the reach of our work. The work of our church is there for the communities that can afford a building, clergy and program. Communities of disciples, however, would be more flexible, moving into areas that cannot afford a building and working among people who are alienated from the traditional church.
Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.