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By 10:10 a.m., the place was packed.
I had come for the 10:30 a.m. worship service, the first one in Cornerstone Baptist Church’s new ministry campus in Inverness, Fla.
They had set out 800 chairs, but by 10:30, more than 1,000 people had shown up.
The pastor opened the service by singing, “The Hand of Our God Is on This Place.”
I cried with joy because I could feel God’s hand, his presence and his smile on this place. Although it’s not even my church, I had come because it’s part of my job and because I have friends at this church, including the pastor. I came to celebrate with them.
The day before, I drove by the 20 acre, $4.7 million complex and took in its size and scope. It’s huge and it’s a huge leap of faith for this congregation, or any congregation, to take on such a project.
Six years ago, this particular church came out of an older, long-established church, also in Inverness. The original church built a huge complex last year.
My church, too, is huge, as are a few others around the county, and they take up a lot of space with their buildings and property. You need a map to find your way around some of these places.
The members of these big churches, whose money goes to pay for them, mostly express awe and gratitude and wonder.
“Look what God has done for us,” they say.
But not everyone thinks that way. Every time another local church starts a grand-scale construction project we get critical anonymous calls to our “Sound Off” line here at the newspaper. Last month one caught my attention. The caller said:
“Remember when Jesus was on earth, he was a friend and tended to the poor. Do you suppose these churches they’re building like palaces are more apt to have Jesus in them than just a normal church? I doubt that at all. Jesus is not, was not, that type of person. He tended to the needy and the poor. It says so right in the Bible.”
The caller obviously assumes that big churches don’t tend to the poor and needy, but that’s not necessarily true. I know that my church has helped rehab people’s homes, bought vehicles for people, fed hundreds — just to name a few things.
Another “palace” church is devoted to caring for the mentally and physically disabled in our community. Another focuses on feeding hungry people in the county, and several open their buildings for community use. Another gives away prom dresses to local teen girls.
As for smaller churches, some of the smallest, poorest churches are incredibly generous. But some aren’t. Some are poor because they’re insular and us-centered, devoid of spiritual life and God’s hand is removed from these places.
The size of a building isn’t a reliable measurement of whether or not “Jesus is in them,” and it’s illogical and unbiblical to think that Jesus prefers little churches. After all, he worshiped in the temple in Jerusalem, which was ornate and grand. It says so right in the Bible.
There’s probably just as much self-righteous pride among the poor because of their poverty as there is among the wealthy because of their riches. It’s in our nature to look down on people to whom we can’t relate, until we get to know them.
I asked the pastor of a big church to respond to the “Sound Off” caller. Here’s what he said:
“Churches are living organisms, and by God’s creative design, when organisms are healthy, the natural thing for them to do is to grow. … Healthy churches, as they grow, develop more resources in the form of people, and subsequently are able to do more to touch the needy and the poor.
“If a church is known more by its buildings than it is by its people and its ministry, then it is not healthy in the first place. Our … buildings are a blessing God has given his faithful people to enable them to do more ministry. We completely understand that with a greater opportunity there comes a greater responsibility, and time will prove our love for our neighbors.”
So, come to church one Sunday morning at one of these big churches and see for yourself if Jesus is there.