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November 19, 2013

What a Church Building Means

By Brittany Tedesco

For the past two years, I’ve attended a small church in a sleepy little town in central Virginia. My husband and I are joined by a few other families that meet atop a hill in an ivy-covered stone church, complete with belfry, built in 1912 by members of the local community.

Back in the day, the now sleepy town used to be a buzzing center of commerce due to the abundance of jobs created by the Virginia Soapstone Company in the stone quarry. The church at that time was full. But as the years wore on, the congregation decreased along with the town’s population. Today, the church is nothing more than a quaint relic to many who stop to observe or photograph it.

But the old structure is special to me. I like meeting there for Bible teaching and communal prayer, worship, study, and breaking of bread. I like walking through the narrow little doorway to see familiar faces. I like sitting on an old wooden pew and gazing up at the stained glass windows and rafters, remembering the building’s long history. I like it.

But if our little congregation met in a different location–someone’s home, for instance–I would be okay with that. The ambiance might not be as “cool,” but ambiance isn’t what makes a Church, as poor believers throughout the world well know.

Meeting underneath a tree, inside a home, or out in a field are par for the course for poverty-stricken, persecuted believers that comprise the Church worldwide. And they’re willing to do it.

But as I’ve discovered, a church building means something significant to a person who’s left everything to follow Jesus in a hostile land–something much more than a place with nice ambiance in which to gather.

In Myanmar (Burma), it means security. In Muslim-dominated places in Africa, it means God cares.

A native ministry leader from Myanmar who recently visited Christian Aid told us “to be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” Religion is so tightly interwoven with cultural identity that to become a Christian in Myanmar means isolation, rejection, denigration. It means suddenly finding yourself alone in a very communally driven society.

So what does a church building mean to a Burmese believer in Christ? It means a stable community of fellow Christians–a tangible statement of commitment that, no matter what hardships may come, a body of believers is there to stay.

Throughout the course of his ministry, this leader has been able to construct buildings for several of the church fellowships he’s planted, most of which are simple bamboo shelters. To emphasize their permanence in the community, they also double as schoolhouses for the many children his missionary coworkers are educating.

In recent years, he’s managed to equip several of the shelters with solar panels that enable brothers and sisters in Christ to meet after dark for study, worship, and fellowship. In a land without electricity where candles are prohibitively expensive, the church buildings have literally become lights in the darkness.

In Islam-controlled regions of Africa, locals watch as oil-rich Muslim missionaries from the Middle East build ornate mosques, hospitals, and schools. Those who are granted access to these things must pledge allegiance to Islam by repeating the shahada–the Muslim profession of faith.

Many readily do. But poor believers who remain loyal to their commitment to Christ often have no resources and must gather together in the open air to be baked by the sun or drenched by a rainstorm.

“Your God doesn’t care for you,” is the implied–and often spoken–belief by the community. And it’s easy for the Christians, in a moment of weakness, to feel the same way.

What does a church building mean to them? It means God sees them. He loves them. He provides for them.

He does indeed. And He’s inviting us to take part in His provision of these poor believers. For those of you who’ve given to Christian Aid to provide church buildings for native believers overseas: thank you. Your gifts have provided them with desperately needed encouragement, security, and comfort in cruel, unforgiving environments. May God bless you.

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