Mourning the loss

Father David Epps's picture

I read in the paper that the old sanctuary of Sharpsburg Baptist Church has been demolished.

Portions of the building have stood since 1878 but, with the continuing deterioration of the building and with safety being a major factor, the congregation built a new building and, after valiant but unsuccessful efforts to save the old church, it finally was laid to rest.

I will miss that old building, even though I have never set foot inside. It was one of those buildings that one sees on postcards sometimes, the perfect picture of a country Baptist church.

There were times in the more than two decades I have lived in this area that I stopped in the parking lot of the church and read, or prayed, or meditated.

I am quite certain that the decision to demolish the building was a heart-wrenching one for the members of Sharpsburg Baptist. Doubtless many of them grew up worshipping in that old building, and it is likely that many of them came to a relationship with Christ inside its walls. There are probably generations of the same families that had known no other sanctuary until they occupied their new structure, which is, itself, a lovely church building.

I, too, came to know the Lord in an old white, country-type church. Back in the mid-1960s, I began attending Mountain View Methodist (in the days before they were the “United” Methodists) Church which, I was told, was over 100 years old even then.

It was small, too small for a growing community and, before I left high school, a new modern sanctuary was built in front of the old historic structure and, later, additions to the building came.

Truthfully, I loved the new building more than the old, but the ancient wooden church held and still holds a favorite place in my remembrances.

I love historical stuff. The History Channel has me as a regular viewer and one of my prized possessions is a 50-cent note that was issued as currency prior to the War for American Independence. I am told that, soon, the old Mountain View will be demolished, too.

But, as sorrowful as that is, the church building is not the Church. The Church at Mountain View and Sharpsburg Baptist finds it convenient to meet in buildings that they have been fortunate to construct, but the church could just as well meet in a funeral home and still be the Church.

In fact, that’s exactly what my church did for the first six years of its existence. We were the church when we had no building, and we are no more of a church now that we have two buildings on 11.5 acres and are in the planning stages for another building.

A building, if the truth be told, is merely a tool, like a hammer or a screwdriver. A tool is only useful as long as it helps one get the job done. If the tool breaks or becomes otherwise insufficient, it is time to consider a new tool — or a new building.

The Church, of course, had no buildings for the first three centuries. Christians met and worshipped where they could, usually in small groups to avoid persecution as they do today in countries where their faith is outlawed or persecuted.

But the day came where buildings became a useful tool for the gathering and preparing of the saints. I certainly would rather have a building than not and I personally like buildings that enhance the worship experience. But the building is not, never has been, nor never will be the Church. If our building burns to the ground or is destroyed by the elements, we will still be The Church.

The Church consists of those men, women, and children who are scattered throughout the community during the week and, on the Lord’s Day, come together to sing, to pray, to be instructed, to encourage, to give, and in most of the churches of the world, to come to the Table for Holy Communion, the Eucharist.

And, yes, that gathering can take place in an old building built of wood over 100 years ago, and it can take place in locations that seem very un-church-like.

In my office, I have a photo of an outdoor gathering somewhere in South America. There are a few rough wooden benches, a table for the bread and wine, and there are five people occupying those benches, not including the pastor. There, under the open sky, subject to the sun, the wind, and all the elements of nature, the Church is gathered.

For over a century, the faithful gathered in the old, now demolished Sharpsburg Baptist Church. The same gathering occurred during the same period of time in eastern Tennessee as Methodists gathered at a building they called Mountain View.

They, and the rest of the Christians of this world, will gather this Sunday and every Sunday until the end of time in hundreds of thousands of cathedrals, churches, edifices, shopping centers, movie theaters, night clubs, funeral chapels, office buildings, homes, in tents, or even outside in the sun and, at times, even in the rain.

We may have sentimental attachments to places, things, and buildings and memories may be sweet and lingering. The Church, however, is the people. Buildings may be raised and buildings may be razed. But the Church, those faithful who gather for worship, will endure for all time.

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