I’m guessing this has never happened to you. But it happened to a friend of mine. The church he pastors rents its sanctuary and offices from another church. When that church put the property up for sale, a wealthy Hindu couple purchased it. They assured my friend that nothing would need to change with the way the church functioned or used the property.
Then they set up an altar in the “cry room” (a room at the back of the sanctuary where parents can watch the service with their infants).
What do you do about that?
I mean really. Imagine arriving at your church prepared to worship, and then noticing a new fixture in the back of the room. Hmmm. Maybe one of our missionaries set up a table to show us what it’s like to minister in India. Then you look a little closer. Nope. That’s an altar. Incense. An idol. People have been worshipping an idol here. Here. In the same building where we worship God.
How would you handle that?
I’m not just trying to be provocative by raising a crazy scenario. But I do think that it’s healthy for us to wrestle with some of the dilemmas that our brothers and sisters face as they seek to live as the church in unique settings. So take a minute to think about how you would respond. (Don’t cheat by reading ahead. Seriously think about it for a minute.)
Here’s what my friend did. He preached on two things. First, he preached on the reality of the church. The church is not a building. In the Old Testament, the Temple could be defiled by bringing uncleanness (and idols) into the physical structure. In the New Testament, however, worship is no longer centered on a building. The life of the church spills out into all of life. A dentist’s office is no less sacred than a so-called sanctuary. So an altar in the biggest room that this particular church happens to meet in does not defile the church. Idolatry in their lives would bring defilement, not idols in their meeting hall.
Second, my friend preached on 1 Corinthians 8:4–6, where Paul says, “as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’” People in Corinth were understandably concerned about eating meat that had been used to worship an idol. But Paul told them not to worry about steaks or blocks of wood. God is real, focus on him.
Obviously idolatry is a huge issue. But the presence of an object that has been falsely worshiped does not overpower God’s church. If that were the case, we would have to leave our wallets, our spouses, and our children at the church door, because those things often function as idols in all of our lives.
The thing that impressed me the most about the way my friend handled this situation is that they used the presence of the altar as a reminder to pray for their new landlords. In reality, there are people all around us who desperately need Jesus; we just don’t always recognize their lostness and idolatry. But when my friend’s new landlords set up a Hindu altar in the back of the sanctuary, all of the cards were on the table. Our calling is to be ministering to the people that God has placed in our lives, even when their idolatry is not literally on display.