I made my way to a beautiful, if uncomfortable, pew in the balcony and perused the sanctuary from my perch. On the high walls to my left and right, and down below, were several examples of modern art. As I glanced at the paintings, they seemed at once out of place and right at home with the intricate woodwork commissioned by the church’s long-departed architect.
It was a place of rebirth and then rebirth again. And there is something in the sauce of that uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, community that I need to remember for my own life. Built as a Presbyterian chapel in 1914, the church was abandoned in the late 1980s and reclaimed by a private developer as a community center and arts venue. Poetry readings, lectures, and musical performances now take place there, but on Sundays, the building becomes a church again as members of a newly formed congregation rent out the structure to hold services. Just like those paintings on the wall, the large brick church seems at once out of place and right at home surrounded by skyscrapers and modern apartment buildings—simultaneously a reminder of the past and a window into the future.
It’s a lesson almost as old as creation itself: There can be no new life without death. As Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). The gospel itself bears this out, as there could have been no emptied tomb without a crucifixion. And a sinner does not become a new creation without coming to Christ dead in his transgressions.
As it is with anything that captures our heart, if we grip too tightly we may discover we have created an idol not easily subdued.
Death precedes life just as, by Jewish reckoning, the night precedes the dawn. Yet our desire for comfort and continuity means that too often we want to hold on to the old at the cost of the new thing God is doing. But as it is with anything that captures our heart, if we grip too tightly—no matter how good a thing once was—we may discover we have created an idol not easily subdued.
A Gift in the Wilderness
Early in Israel’s history as a nation, God gave the people a good gift: a bronze serpent on a pole. It was the sort of present, if it were received today, one might hope came accompanied with a gift receipt. At the time, though, it was a godsend—literally. The people following Moses in the desert had grumbled and complained against the Lord (again). In an act of judgment, God sent poisonous snakes into their camp. Whoever was bitten fell ill, and some even died. Enter the bronze serpent. (See Num. 21:6-9.) The God who judges humanity’s sin is also the God who shows mercy.
The Lord told Moses to construct a figure of a snake out of bronze and place it on a pole, high above the camp. If anyone fell ill, all he would have to do was look upon that snake and God would make him well. It was, for an undeserving people, a picture of grace. God could have said that restoration would demand climbing a mountain or flagellation, but all it took was for guilty people to crawl to the edge of their tents and look upon the gift of God. In that negligible act, there was recognition that salvation comes from the Lord alone. God was setting the stage for the ongoing relationship He would have with His people and later with the world. Look to Me and be saved, He was saying.
I imagine it was somewhat awkward the day they moved the camp and took down the metal snake. Those who had been sick were now well, so there was no reason to set the serpent out again. But what to do with a tangible piece of redemption history? Perhaps the Levites put it into storage as a memento of the great work God had done, or maybe someone who had been healed carried it into the Promised Land as a souvenir.
There is no accounting for the bronze serpent until it makes its return to the stage of Judah’s covenant drama about a thousand years later. Apparently, the snake was built to last. We read that when the good king Hezekiah took the throne, “he removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah. He also broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the sons of Israel burned incense to it; and it was called Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4). What was once a gift from the Lord, designed to point people back to Him, had become a distraction, an object of worship that robbed God of His glory and blocked His people from the path of life.
But this is the way it is when we confuse the gifts with the Giver. The power to heal did not lie with a lifeless piece of bronze. It lay with the Creator of life itself. And it still does.
A Gift That Lasts (Even When It Doesn’t)
There are those who pass by the old building in Charlotte and lament the loss of what once was. Six days a week, religious programs and discipleship activities have given way to dance recitals and gallery exhibitions. The gospel focus has been lost, or so it would seem. But that structure of bricks and concrete and glass was never really the church—and it’s not alone. All over the United States, former places of worship are sitting empty. Approximately 4,000 churches close their doors each year. (Thankfully, a similar number of congregations are launched in the same period, though church plants don’t typically come with buildings.) Some of the lost buildings, as this one was, are converted into community centers and theaters. Others remain dormant, decaying monuments to an increasingly bygone era.
There is much to mourn when we consider these churches that have come and gone. Life happened within their walls. The Word of God was preached. Salvations recorded. Baptisms celebrated. Marriages strengthened. Though today people are much more transient, changing zip codes almost as often as congregations, in the past this was not so. A local church, for many people, was a center of community life. And so, watching these once vibrant buildings, and the congregations they represent, fade into history is no small thing. There is good reason to be sad, as it’s never easy to watch something good slowly crumble away. I believe in sacred space. I believe there is something sublime about a place consecrated for worship, where people gather to encounter the living God. At the same time, a building is holy only because the God who is worshipped there is holy.
Hezekiah smashed the bronze serpent—once a good gift—to pieces because it had become an object of worship. And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps God, in allowing many of our churches to be “smashed,” so to speak, is calling us to rekindle our first love. Perhaps He’s urging us to remember that His church is not a building or a program but a community of faith in love with its Savior, that works to proclaim the gospel, serve one another, and usher in His kingdom. I wonder if He’s reminding us that our job in being kingdom-minded people is to make the entire world sacred space.
There’s a funny thing about the good that comes from our heavenly Father: It’s fruit that never spoils. It lasts far beyond the season in which it was given. Yes, the husk may fall away, and its appearance may change with the dawning of a new era. But goodness from the Lord continues to give life. Take, again, the bronze serpent from the exodus. We might think any goodness in the gift was destroyed, but that’s not the last time it shows up in the Bible.
God’s church is a community of faith in love with its Savior, working to proclaim the gospel, serve one another, and usher in His kingdom.
Late one night in Jerusalem, a Jewish leader named Nicodemus paid Jesus a visit and asked about eternal life. Jesus responded: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). The gift of God was never in the serpent itself. There was no magic in the bronze. It was merely an instrument; God’s mercy was the gift. That mercy outlasted the sickness that befell the Israelites, and it survived Hezekiah’s destruction. It was about Jesus all along, pointing to the cross from the Old Testament, a single flaming arrow in a barrage of illuminations. Jesus could rightly say to Nicodemus, “The snake in the desert—that was all about Me.” Nicodemus was sick with sin, and the only remedy was to look upon the Lord.
A Gift That Grows Beyond Itself
There in that beautiful brick church building that had been converted into a community center, I listened as the pastor passionately preached the gospel—the same good news that has been preached since an angel told the women at the tomb on Easter morning that Jesus was alive. I joined in as we sang hymns and choruses of praise to God, the same way that Christians around the world have done down through the centuries. I heard about the small group meetings that would take place throughout the coming week in houses around the area, just as they do in the poorest villages and the wealthiest cities, in silent recognition that the first churches were homes.
At the end of the service, something unexpected happened. The pastor began speaking of the need for more space. Both Sunday morning services were filled regularly, and the parking lot had become something of a nightmare. I knew what was coming next—or I thought I did. I expected him to announce a building campaign or a move to a larger, more convenient location. But that wasn’t it. Instead, he said it was time to plant a new church in a nearby community. He asked the congregation to pray about the opportunity and to consider joining the team being sent out. They wouldn’t be abandoning their neighbors anytime soon. Rather, they would be seeking out new ones.
Church buildings are good gifts from God. But like the bronze serpent, they’re not really the gift at all, only visible representations of something much deeper and much more lasting. The true gift is the Spirit of God who has taken up residence within His people. And that’s something that can never be shut down or sold.
Photography by Matthew Christopher