I’ll admit it: the moment I walked in the doors as a pastoral candidate two days out of seminary, I was seduced. The new church extension had it all: an artful foyer, spacious offices, a state-of-the-art kitchen, and a multi-purpose hall filled with sport equipment. What got me wasn’t just the rooms themselves but what they represented: the appearance of commitment to progress and growth. True, the congregational itself hardly seemed large enough to necessitate such a yawning structure, but I was reassured by the expressed vision of making this building a community meeting place.
Six months later, I was pastor and the congregational leadership was declaring their interest in renovating the sanctuary to match the new extension. Yes, of course I too was bothered by the stark white, tomb-like walls, the jungle-green 50s carpet patched with duct tape, and the abandoned choir loft concealing last year’s Christmas garland. So I gave the project my official thumbs up and then began the list of modifications that—in my humble (but generally trustworthy!) opinion—would add to its (holy!) appeal.
Then one day I happened to stumble over 2 Samuel 7.
In the early, “resource-challenged” days of Israel’s life as a people, Yahweh dwelled in dusty tent known as the tabernacle. With its uninspiring aesthetic of collapsible curtains, its inevitable travel stains, and of course the constant toil required to put it up and down, the tabernacle hardly met anyone’s definition of an ideal house of worship. It’s no surprise that at the first real sign of stability, Israel’s good-hearted king proposes building a God-worthy temple.
What is surprising is Yahweh’s vehement response to this well-intentioned proposal. God sends a messenger to say to the king, effectively, “All these years I’ve been living in a tent, moving place to place with you Israelites, did you ever once hear me complain. Did you ever hear me say, ‘Why hasn’t anyone built me a fancy house?’ So then, what on earth would lead you to conclude that I want a giant temple to live in?”
In the midst of all the good intentions, the one thing no one thought to ask was what sort of house God wanted. And surprises of all surprises: God wants the tent. God loves the tent. To the Israelites, the tent was a sign of their poverty, a reminder of all the years they wandered in the wild and had nothing to offer God but a pile of flapping canvas. But to God? The tent was the place God moved among the people in total freedom. In this tent, God wandered their fields, forded their rivers, listened to their midnight whispers, and shared their world. Wherever the people gathered, there God set up shop. The tent, it turns out, was God’s dream home.
But it was inevitable. The temple went up anyway. And when it did, things changed. No more traveling the streets, no more dwelling in the neighborhoods for Yahweh. From here on out if you wanted to meet with Yahweh, the burden was on you to put on your temple clothes and pass through the golden gates.
The story is hauntingly familiar. Columns of marble, walls of stone, golden domes, pointy steeples, stained-glass windows, name-engraved bricks: whatever the form, they all share in common the impulse to capture majesty in mortar, to package divine power in predictable programs. Yet the rubble of ancient temples and the echoes of empty cathedrals witness to another common fact: this simply doesn’t work. God refuses to remain under house arrest. God is doggedly determined to pitch where the people really are, not where we would have them be.
At our church these days, we’re beginning a new conversation. We’re spending less time asking how we can lure others into our building and more time asking how we can break ourselves out of it. We’re starting to ask what might be different if we lived less like a temple and more like a tent. How might this shift in identity from temple to tent change the way we use our resources? What would it mean for a church to prioritize mobility over stability? What might it look like for us to “stake” ourselves outside our four walls? What would it look like to “camp” in the streets of our community, not as an occasional weekend excursion but as an entirely new way of conceiving life together?
We don’t know the answers yet, but this much we do know: the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us. It’s past time for us to join him. God has come incarnate so that we the temple hostages can become a tent-dwelling Church.
Meghan Good is Pastor of Albany Mennonite Church in Albany, Oregon.