In the nineteen seventies I, my wife and children belonged to a denominational church. Our young children were enrolled in Sunday school and other church activities for children. A friendship formed with another couple attending our church. We two couples began to keenly debate the position of the Aboriginal people in the Riverland area where we lived and why these people were not a part of the church community.
Because of our debates Frank and I determined we would try and meet the need. We visited some of the key Aboriginal families living on the riverbank opposite the township of Berri. A warm welcome awaited us, ‘You’re the first white people ever to visit us,’ they said. An immediate rapport between them and us sprang up.
After consultation with them, we agreed to hold regular fellowship meetings in their homes. Built out of kerosene tins straightened out and old sheets of iron salvaged from the refuse dump the homes were nothing more than humpies. Bits of furniture and crockery came from the second-hand shops. These people went to immense trouble to clean their homes inside and tidy the outside.
A weekly ministry of Christ honouring preaching began amongst these people that spanned ten years. Reaching river communities from Balranald, New South Wales to the Coorong, South Australia. Among these people, God called his chosen ones out to be joint-heirs with Christ and in turn, they joined in the spread of the good news among their people.
They were eager to be part of the fellowship but it all happened outside of the formal church building. Tents became the cathedral, oil-drums and planks, the church pews. We bought a marquee twelve foot by twelve foot enabling us to conduct meetings in the scrub and isolated places along the river banks in all weather.
The idea that church buildings are not what God is about was new to me as a mainline church boy born and bred. Serving God among our Aboriginal brethren changed our spiritual concepts of where God dwelt forever.
In my travels through the outback of South Australia, I discovered the land dotted with neglected, deserted, and ruined churches. The churches were built by committed people, the stonework perfect and lasting, that is why we have these buildings still intact a hundred years later. Hard times, droughts and changing economics, caused the people to abandon their properties, homes and churches.
As I write, I see in my mind’s eye a cathedral, a beautiful building to seat a hundred people or more. The town of Craddock was surveyed on the edge of the marginal farming country and held great promise of growth. Once surrounded by houses, the church now stands alone amid empty blocks. A woman with a dream bought the building and renovated it to suit her needs. She held parties to entertain people enthralled by mystery, murder and mayhem. The dream didn’t materialise as she wished and once more the church doors were closed.
My point is, the building is not the dwelling place of God.
When the people moved on so did the monument to God. The hearts of the people are now the cathedrals, the dwelling places of God. This beautiful cathedral at Craddock is a shell, a monument to a past glory. Have we, his people, moved on? Are we are still insisting he lives in a cathedral or building?
I have learnt that church buildings are necessary as a centre for the people to gather together to worship collectively. Buildings, however, are not the be-all and end-all. Gleaned from a life lived in the workforce and among the people rather than in a clergy office, my ministry as a pastor changed radically.
If God is only allowed entry to our hearts on Sundays or people haven’t moved on with him insisting the building is the holy place, the dwelling place of God, their Christian walk will be empty. The building is the thing worshipped and God is ignored. The scriptures declare, ‘Haven’t you yet learned that your body is the home of the Holy Spirit God gave you and that he lives within you? Your own body does not belong to you. For God has bought you with a great price.’1 Corinthians 6: 19 LB
I have put aside bricks and mortar. The hearts and minds of people have taken their place. People are now the church, the dwelling place of Christ and that is why I write and preach.
My job is to emphasise to all believers they are crucified with Christ nevertheless they live yet not them but Christ lives in them.