“Elvis has left the building” is a phrase that was often used by public address announcers at the conclusion of Elvis Presley concerts in order to disperse audiences who lingered in hopes of an encore. It has since become a catchphrase and punchline to refer to a conclusion of proceedings. (Wikipedia)
Last weekend I attending the closing service for the building in which the Bruce Rock Uniting Church used to worship. Rev John McKane, minister of the Eastern Wheatbelt Parish, banged emphatically on the wall next to the pulpit (there was a great fear that the whole thing would collapse at that point!) and said, “This is not the Church, you are the church!” Of course he was right; that 101 year old corrugated iron shell is not the church, and never has been. It was now simply an unsafe structure which had been used in the past to protect the church from the elements. It had a great and wonderful history but it was not the church.
I took a photo of the congregation leaving after the service and titled it, “the church leaves the building”. It was the conclusion of proceedings, but there is still hope of an encore. I ministered in that congregation for four years with around 10-12 people in attendance. It was not a strong or wealthy congregation. Now several years later there are still 10-12 people, they are surely a faithful people. On Sunday when the building closed, it was packed, perhaps seventy or more people. Yes, some came from other congregations in the Parish, but the potential is still there.
There is always potential in Christ’s Kingdom. A few fish and some loaves become a feast and a seed sown becomes a crop. But there is a lesson also for us in this old building which wasn’t the church. Could moving out of the building give a new impetus to growth, where the rusted corrugated iron, frail timber and threadbare carpets were more of an impediment than grace?
Why do we put so much focus on bricks and mortar, and bank balances, and neat rows of pews? These can be important but they are not the church. The church really only becomes the church when it leaves the building – in Kingdom terms that is not the conclusion of proceedings, it is the hope of an encore. As we go out into the world, from whatever place we venture forth, with the good news of Jesus Christ, we go forth on mission.
In some sad ways, the church has forgotten its mission but things are beginning to change. The church is leaving the building – in Fresh Expressions, in new ways of doing (I prefer “being”) church and so on. We heard from Rev Prof Bill Loader at the General Council meeting recently that the two-thirds world is rapidly becoming the Christian majority. In a few years, China will host the largest number of Christians in the world. In our comfortable Western style First World, it does seem that the church has left the building, but, in a truly Christian way, the church found resurrection in another place. Why not here also?
The church in Bruce Rock closed the building but that same church has gone to join with other churches in the town for the time being and so to be the church with them. Is that a loss? No, it’s an encore. May they find new life, new hope and new inspiration in a church made new in them.
Oh, and by the way, I have never seen such a happy funeral for a 101 year old building.
Rev David de Kock
General Secretary, Uniting Church WA