Through years of practice and hard work, I have learned to spot a garage sale sign at great distances. Driving through the city recently my eye caught a big one – not only was it a going out of business sign, it was at a church.
I drove to a big, old church building that backed up to a high school in one of the older parts of the city. It was a mainline protestant church and as I entered the old gym, the sights and smells were familiar. It looked and felt like almost every older church I have been in. Like my church, even.
I wandered around the building some, and noticed it had all the problems older buildings have. Dated decor, lots of stairs, and it was probably difficult to direct people in the maze of hallways. One table, tucked away in the back, had a picture of the congregation taken a few years prior. The church shared little demographically with the high school you could see out the window. I talked to a few of the ladies working the sale. The church was closing down because they didn't have the money to pay the bills, the building was too much to take care of, and the just couldn't keep membership up. Tears filled their eyes as they spoke of closing down the church, and how hard it had been. I wished I had more time to hear their stories.
It was a sobering thing to walk through this church as it was closing. The stuff – junk some would say – that filled the tables represented hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of items. The chairs and tables that were for sale once sat in classrooms that were filled with children hearing the Gospel, with adults studying the bible, and with youth learning about Jesus. But now? The hallways were dead, the classrooms were silent, and the nursery was stripped of everything that could be sold.
The tables were piled high with many of the same things that are probably tucked away in the closets and classrooms of many other older churches. Punch bowls, board games, fake flowers and foliage. There were lots of decorations for all the holidays, telephones, and file cabinets. There were piles and piles of tables and chairs, bookshelves and books, curriculum and more. A table full of office supplies, kids toys, and craft supplies. There was a corner in the back with filmstrips, projectors, and turntables. The record player, with stereo and turntable, had a label on it that said it belonged to the "Youth Department."
This is what is left over when a church closes. Stuff. Stuff that once was used for ministry, for the glory of God, was now being picked over and sold for pennies on the dollar. At one point all of these things were seen as helpful, necessary even, for the ministry that particular church did. People sacrificed to buy these things, to provide the church with what it needed to survive and do ministry.
But what the church needs most is people, not things.
The people who populated the halls were long gone, but the stuff remained. You can often tell what a person values by what they own. At an estate sale, a person's life is on display – what they spent their money on, where they went, what they took pictures of to preserve the memory. This church sale felt the same way. You could see the nursery items and kids' tables and communion sets. They had everything that a person might say you need to have in order to have church. There are church plants that would love to have their space, their kids supplies, their instruments. I bet some people even think if they just had those things, they would have succeeded.
They had all the stuff. But they had no people. We know a church isn't a building, it's people. Sometimes a church loses their building due to a fire or storms and we are reminded of the truthfulness of that phrase. But every day, silently around us, the opposite plays out. A building, supplies, books, and equipment are left, but no people. Undoubtedly, the people of a church bring God glory, the people of a church are the "wisdom of God made manifest in the world."
There's nothing wrong with buildings or chairs or stuff. They are simply tools used to bring glory to God through the fulfillment of the Great Commission. But the danger of focusing on things over people is that we might actually get what we want – enough stuff to fill a gym even. But nothing about a dusty gym, full of out-dated stuff truly glorifies the God of the universe the way we were created to. His people do.