When Rebuilding The Church Looks Like Destroying It

Every builder knows that before you can build onto something, most of the time you have to tear down something else.

Our church is preparing to move into a shared space with an existing faith community in our city. That community is fairly traditional as is the building itself, and so this weekend we began the process of retrofitting a portion of it in advance of our arrival.

I spent the morning  doing demolition on an old, heavily fortified wall adjacent to the chapel’s altar area. It was obviously added on sometime in the middle of the building’s long history; fashioned out of all sorts of mismatched, weathered boards and hundreds of disparate nails. Whatever reason this later wall was erected was no longer apparent, and to enable us to move ahead it had to go.

What began with some tentative, careful work with a pry bar which proved ineffective, soon evolved into a series of wild, grunting, windmill swings with a massive sledgehammer. With each furious slam against it, shards of wood began flying away accompanied by showers of twisted, broken nails and exploding clouds of drywall dust.

There’s something so cathartic about exacting this kind of force upon something, especially when you know that it is progress; albeit progress disguised as destruction. To the passerby or to one not aware of my intentions, I could have been mistaken for trying to ruin the thing. It could have easily looked like I was simply doing reckless, thoughtless, angry damage.

Such is the work of renovating the Church and such are the criticisms of those doing the renovating.

One of the biggest misconceptions about people working for change within organized Christianity, is that we are its adversaries; that we exist solely to stir up dissension and bring criticism and find fault—that our ultimate goal is to destroy the thing. This is misinformed and incorrect and hurtful.

Whether activists, Progressives, reformers, critics, deconstructionists, or prophets our agenda is the same: rebuild something we love so that it is better than it was before. The point is not the destruction of the Church, but its glorious renovation.

Sometimes building first necessitates breaking. Sometimes what is, is so unhealthy or unstable or corroded that it has to be removed for the sake of what will be. Those of us working toward the Church we wish to see in the world, realize that somewhere along the way, what began so purely and simply has been encrusted with dogma, amended with manmade tradition, and buried in layers upon layers of all sorts of cumbersome stuff that no longer serves a productive purpose in these days.

And so we lovingly but forcefully swing our sledgehammers.

Every day we get our hands dirty and we do the sweaty, treacherous, back-breaking work of ripping apart something that is so dear to us, yet so in need of repair.

I understand that to many, this kind of spiritual demolition is painful. I know that it represents familiarity and memories and history, and threatens many things that people treasure and find difficulty parting with—yet these cannot be reasons not to press on. While we feel compassion for our brothers and sisters resistant to the rebuilding process, we cannot cease to do what is uncomfortable to some simply because it is often that very comfort which has yielded this present disrepair, and it is that comfort which needs to be bulldozed.

That is why I do what I do.

That’s why so many of us do this; why we question and criticize and challenge and push back and call out, because we can see what will it will be when the work is finished. We are certain that the Church that will be, is going to be bigger and more beautiful and more compassionate than it is now. We believe that the world needs and deserves something that looks more like Jesus than this thing currently does, and our hearts house the inextinguishable burden to make it reality despite the resistance.

Yes rebuilding is difficult, but it is necessary.

And before that very needed renovation happens, some unproductive things need to be leveled. This is that leveling.

Dear friends, we are not destroying the Church, even though it sometimes looks or feels that way from a distance.

With every difficult day and every hard conversation and every forceful word and every painful moment, we are lovingly rebuilding it.

Zeal for your house will consume me.” These words were attributed to the early religious rebuilders in Israel, and later used to reference Jesus himself as he renovated in advance of his Church.

We too are so consumed, and so we welcome the sweat and the dust and the tired shoulders and the strange looks, and the angry replies of those who don’t understand that this demolition is actually a labor of love.

Brace yourselves, we’re about to take another swing.


Thank you to all those modern-day renovators out there doing the difficult daily work of bringing change; the pastors, writers, thinkers, activist  artists, prophets, and pew sitters who encourage and challenge me to keep going.