I have come across this word “shekinah” from time to time throughout my years of being in the church, and did so just recently again in Eugene Peterson’s book “The Pastor”. It was a word that was quite timely for him as a young pastor who was worshiping in his basement with about a hundred folks… some of whom were still struggling with the idea or the picture, that we traditionally think of when we think of church. You know the picture (well maybe the picture I am going to get dates me a bit), the little white church in the middle of town with the nice steeple on top of it (it might be a bit different for you especially depending of where you are at on that timeline). Why is it that so quickly our minds go to a building that looks a certain way that gives definition to church? Peterson actually had folks leave their little church, because he at one point had made light of the perfect looking church building.
As a person who has been involved with the church his whole life I have seen over and over again the politics and angst related to a church building for a group of people coming together with the intent of being the church. And the closer you get to the action of leading in the church the more you see related to this. I have seen moneys get designated for upgrading the physical building even when the church realistically needed resources to be allocated into different efforts. I have seen leadership cave into this… I have seen them take the money and then use the moneys towards other efforts, but assuring the donors all along that their pet projects would still be done (and that was followed by some real wars and typically people leaving the church). I have seen more passion about keeping the building clean and updated all too often, when one would think that passion put in other areas could really drive the mission of the church so much better.
Then in comes a word like Shekinah. Eugene Peterson had a local rabbi take him aside and encourage him through the meaning of this and how he could use that to help his congregation form a better picture of church. The word “is usually understood as a light disseminating presence, bringing an awareness of God to a time and place where God is not expected to be – a place.” The rabbi goes on to tell the story from the OT when the people of Israel had come back from years of captivity and one of the first things they did was to restore the Temple. However, when the people first looked at this restored Temple their initial reaction was one of sorrow as they looked upon a building that looked nothing like the beautiful Temple they had before. But as they wept a dazzling, light-resplendent presence descended. This was God’s personal presence and it filled the Temple with His glory. The people lifted their arms in praise. It is a story that we need to remind our church families of!!
But, how is that going, for His church in America? We see some movements of the church that seem to be trying to understand the church as a place where God is present, rather than just confine it to a building. I remember earlier in my full-time ministry life using the word church for the little gatherings of people called small groups (and receiving some cold receptions to that thought).
Obviously, it isn’t that God isn’t present in those buildings… but we have to be careful about naming certain places alone as sacred spaces and confining God to them.
*Now let me put a brief disclaimer on this… there may be those who say I am advocating for not going to church to worship with the fellow believers, and thus neglect the gathering together of God’s people. I am not suggesting that, rather I am wondering if we are expanding upon that picture of church in a world that so needs the church to be present in other ways.
How about you? What picture comes to mind for you when you hear the word church? What do you think might be the overwhelming response to that question? And finally how might we start refining that picture so as to be more and more part of something that depicts what the one who leads the church would want it to be.
In the next series of blogs I would like to check in on some of our ways that we define church and maybe even have limited the power and reach of His church.
The building itself often is the first thing that comes to mind… even though more recently churches have attempted to go away from the traditional look of a church building. But does that mean it still isn’t defined by a particular building in that community? Let’s start taking a look at some other main ideas or functions that seem to dominate the definition of the Church.