the church is not a buidling

The Church is Not a Building!

Terry Lieb God Finds, Living out your Faith 6 Comments

This is the church

This is the steeple

Open the doors and see all the people!

Do you recognize those words? Perhaps, like me, you learned this song as a child, along with the hand motions that went with it. First, your index fingers form the “steeple” in front of your interlaced fingers (the “church”); then you flip your hands over and wiggle your still-interlocked fingers to see all the “people.”

I looked it up on YouTube and it actually came up, just as I remembered it. The hand motions were the same and the words were those I learned as a young child. You can check it out here.

However, I’ve become aware of a different version of the song that has quickly become lodged in my gray matter. Some insightful and progressive theologian—possibly a child?—set new words to the familiar tune and hand movements. The new lyrics go like this: 

The church is not a building

The church is not a steeple

The church is not a resting place

The church is the people!

I had reason to reflect on this simple yet profound message during a recent trip that Rita and I took. We were visiting a family member in New Hampshire who had had a stroke and decided to stop at some historical sites such as Strawberry Banke and the Shaker Village at Canterbury during our visit.

As we got ready to leave, “the packer” (who shall remain nameless) packed the electric scooter Rita uses for tours that require extensive walking but he somehow forgot to pack its rechargeable battery! We didn’t realize the oversight until it was too late. When we called ahead, we found that Strawberry Banke had a wheelchair we could use, but Shaker Village did not.

We began contacting the medical equipment rental places in the area, with no success. Then we began trying churches. We passed many big, beautiful churches, but most were empty and locked since it was not a Sunday. We tried calling several, but in most cases we spoke with answering machines. A few did call back but they didn’t have a wheelchair for us to use.

As we drove down Route 107 on Wednesday morning on our way to Portsmouth to visit Strawberry Banke Historical Museum, we saw an old white church built in 1826. It wasn’t the biggest or most impressive of the churches we had passed—in fact, it was fairly plain and timeworn—but the full parking lot and small sign proclaiming “Dump Run Café” grabbed my attention. 

The curiosity-piquing sign

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I love anything “different” and out of the ordinary, including beliefs, traditions, activities, and people who march, run, skip or shimmy to a different drummer. If that sign doesn’t make your curiosity needle jump at least a little you need to have your curiosity meter checked!

I simply had to stop and Rita indulged me. Over the years, she has grown accustomed to my voracious—and growing—curiosity, and never begrudges the detours and interruptions it sometimes creates. At least this didn’t look as menacing as the Rattlesnake Roundup in Galeton, Pennsylvania, I’d insisted we attend!

As I pulled into the parking lot I noticed a woman getting out of her car, cane in hand and sporting a huge smile. She gave me an enthusiastic greeting and I asked her what this “Dump Run Café” was all about.

“I don’t know where they got that name—I’m not a member,” she replied, “but it’s a great place to have a good breakfast and you don’t have to cook! You pay whatever you can but even more important you meet folks and have fun. Why don’t you and your lady come in and have some breakfast?”

The windows and doors were wide open and some old familiar music was overflowing into the parking lot. As I entered the fellowship area, I noticed the band on the other side of the room where it looked like anyone with something that looked like an instrument could join in.

The room was filled with people, and more streamed in all the time. I made my way to the serving counter and I asked the young-at-heart woman taking the orders if the pastor was there this morning. 

“Yep, that’s him right there making the eggs and bacon! Can I get you some breakfast?” she asked eagerly.

It took all of my limited willpower to refuse a few slices of delicious-smelling but illegal bacon! I declined, explaining that I’d unfortunately already eaten and that the reason I’d come was to see if we could borrow a wheelchair for a couple of days. Apparently the request was a real curveball because her confused expression was priceless! 

The church building

“Lemme see what we can do,” she said after she recovered her composure and quickly conveyed my request to the pastor working the grill. Without asking my name, my connection to the church, why I wanted the wheelchair, or when I would return it, the pastor immediately turned to a tall slender senior gentleman with a full head of white wavy hair and said cheerfully, “Please get a wheelchair from the balcony for this gentleman!”

The gentleman with all the hair and me with none headed to the front door of the sanctuary. He retrieved the wheelchair and passed it on to me with a smile. “Enjoy your time in New Hampshire!” he said, apparently sending me off.

Still, no one had asked me for any form of identification or even a phone number where I could be reached! I had to ask him about returning the wheelchair Friday evening. He said easily, “Not sure what all might be going on that night but if no one is here just leave it in the entryway outside the fellowship hall.” I handed him my card and thanked him for his kindness.

The attitude of the pastor, the members, the visitors, and the entire gathering felt very, very different than anything I was used to. It was so different—and amazing—that I could imagine that anyone who came into contact with it would immediately be drawn in and want to learn more about what made this church tick.

There was a warmth, a spirit, an infectious joy there that was so powerful you could almost taste it. This is what a church is, I thought as I went back out to my car.

After an awesome day at the Shaker Village, we headed back to Gilmanton to return the chair. I was eager to see if the same spirit would be present a second time or if it had been an isolated event. I was not disappointed! 

As we approached the church that Friday evening, the building was lit up like a Christmas tree and bustling with activity! This time the basement was home to a noisy youth group, a scout’s meeting, I believe. I decided to take the chair up to the sanctuary since it would eventually need to be returned to the balcony. 

The sanctuary was open and brightly lit, with someone playing lovely music inside. A young woman entering the church at the same time asked if she could help me. She displayed the same warm smile that I had seen several times during my last visit.

I explained what I was doing there and remarked upon how impressed I had been by my brief experience with her church. “The people here are wonderful,” she agreed. “That’s why I’m a member here. I wanted to be part of it. It’s like…home.”

There was no doubt about it. There was something special going on at that church, and I had a sneaking suspicion about what that “something” was.

As a church consultant for over forty years, I still spend a few hours each week talking with clergy and lay leadership discussing their struggles to survive these most challenging times. In many cases, their churches are struggling to stay afloat, with declining membership and dwindling resources. It is not uncommon to have forty members gathering in a sanctuary that seats several hundred!  

The people!

I’ve been involved in countless tense discussions about how the church can afford to keep up their stained glass windows, expensive organs, ornate steeples, or other building maintenance. Often the answers involve cutting back on the pastor’s and other staff’s hours, limiting services, and eliminating outreach activities.

My advice obviously varies depending on the situation, but the core theme is often the same. “Who is the church building important to? God or us?” I ask. “What is a church in its essence?” 

If we really understood what a church was, would we have built these massive sanctuaries and cathedrals over centuries, costing fortunes to construct and to maintain, often while many folks were destitute and needy? Imagine if we would have instead chosen simple buildings to gather in and focused our time and resources on outreach ministry and caring for those less fortunate. I wonder which is more pleasing to our God.

The words echoed in my head:

The church is not a building

The church is not a steeple

The church is not a resting place

The church is the people!

***SPECIAL REQUEST: I’d love to hear feedback on this post, especially from my readers who aren’t members of a faith community. What are your thoughts on church?



  1. What do you think makes a church, a church? Does a group have to explicitly talk about God or have a building to be a church?
  2. Have you had an experience with any group (church or not) that had a special spirit about it? What made it different? How did it make you feel?
  3. If you are currently attending a church, what words would you use to describe the atmosphere there? Do you think it is noticeably different than other places/groups? Should it be?
  4. If you are not attending church, would you be more likely to if it felt like the church in the story? Have you sought out that type of faith community? Why or why not?
  5. Has it been your experience or perception of churches that their emphasis on keeping up the building and/or protecting their financial resources has sometimes taken priority over their mission? How do you think this might be affecting their attendance and membership levels?
  6. Describe your ideal faith community/church.
  7. Do you believe a person can live out their faith as effectively if they aren’t part of a church or faith community? Are there things that only a faith community can offer and if so, what are they?


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Henninger Lorraine
Henninger Lorraine
November 1, 2021 12:17 pm

As always great article! What an awesome church!

Deborah M Graf
Deborah M Graf
November 1, 2021 12:44 pm

I so appreciate your reflections and insights, Terry. I just returned from a study trip in Turkey and Greece and stood in the place of the very first physical church building (constructed in the 4th Century, after Christianity was accepted by the Roman Empire.) Some rocks are left standing and a floor mosaic. Even though the building is no longer there, the people were a part of the story. When our buildings eventually crumble, we are still part of the story and God’s Church continues! The words you remember are from a song from writers Avery and Marsh. I sang… Read more »

November 1, 2021 12:55 pm

Well said Terry. I am going to forward it to our son & family. They spent yesterday working at indwell, in place of church service. Apparently once a month their church family does that. It is some sort of affordable housing project. Great idea!
hope you and Rita are doing well.

Nancy Robertson
Nancy Robertson
November 1, 2021 12:59 pm

Loved it! As much as I have always cherished being part of a church family, it does sadden me to see us get off track as to what “the body of Christ,” the Church really is…as you said so well – the people. We tend to get like Peter who wanted to build shelters on the Mount of Transfiguration to preserve the glorious moment. As believers we need to stay in God’s Word and prayer to keep growing in our understanding of the purpose of His Church. Jesus did go to the synagogue and temple, so if we are following… Read more »

Phil Spohn
November 1, 2021 1:50 pm

Nothing better than a church with “Spirit”. The feel we get from a community of faith speaks volumes for who they are and what they believe. What a great testament of what is possible.

Peggy Sue
Peggy Sue
November 2, 2021 8:41 am

Thank you for the Reformation reminder of what is possible when God’s Spirit moves through God’s people. A truly powerful witness to God’s presence above and beyond the traditional worship experience. The work of the Spirit to create community or as the one woman put it “home” brings me hope in these challenging days/months/years of virtual gatherings and pandemic fears. Hope that when we trust the truth of God’s Spirit among us awesome things are possible. My prayer is that we continue to feel the Spirit moving us to be church for one another,