Manhattan's oldest church is getting ready to celebrate its 250-year history, which includes worshippers ranging from George Washington to those who searched for victims following the attacks back on 9/11.
Today, St. Paul's Chapel in Lower Manhattan is best known today as the "Little Church that Stood". This title arose after the structure survived unscathed as the World Trade Center towers crumbled across the street back on 9/11. The church was built in 1766 and has been recently renovated. The unveiling will come on its anniversary date, which falls on October 30th. The Chapel is Manhattan's last remaining colonial structure and also houses the oldest monument in New York – one dedicated to American revolutionary war hero, Gen. Richard Montgomery.
When I saw this story, and the age of this historic structure, my interest was immediately piqued for many reasons. First of all, I recall standing in front of this church exactly one year after 9/11 and participating in a special ministry outreach there. Our team literally stood on street corners offering to pray with anyone who was willing and especially with those still struggling with the events that had occurred there one year prior.
But my interest was also because of something occurring very recently. My present church just began holding services in a brand new location, but this is happening in a very old place – very old indeed. The original congregation began way back in 1720. That means that there are just a few years shy of being in existence for 300 years! I did say old, did I not? The current building, located just a half a mile away form the original, was erected in 1804. It is always intriguing to walk into a sanctuary of that vintage and ponder how many lives have been impacted for Christ in a place that has been in existence since before the nation was even officially born.
But there are scores of beautiful and historic churches located across the country. When driving most anywhere, steeples can be seen rising into the sky from small quiet country communities to busy large cities everywhere. They serve as a reminder of America’s great spiritual foundation and the faith that has been such a deep part of her inner fiber.
And yet, despite what most people think of when they hear the word "church", the Bible primarily refers to something other than these familiar physical structures. Scripture speaks to the church in two primary ways. First it speaks to the universal church in passages like Ephesians 1:22-23. Paul writes, "And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all." This aspect of the church refers to all who are in the family of God through personal faith in Christ regardless of where they reside.
Then there are the local churches referred to throughout the New Testament. Some of these have epistles named after them. These were literal local congregations who met together at specific places and times when the New Testament was being penned. An example would be seen in 1 Corinthians 1:2. "To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus." Again, these were group of true believers who gathered together to worship, fellowship and serve their Lord and Savior.
So the term "church" is used commonly in three distinct ways. There are the physical buildings, such as the historic ones just referred to. There are the local congregations comprised of individual believers who meet at a specific place, even if they have no formal structure at their disposal. And then there is the universal church made up of all true born-again Christians everywhere on earth. So which of the these matters most?
The bottom line is that physical church buildings come and go. How many from the 1700s still exist today like the ones we spoke of at the outset? Local congregations also do not last forever despite how vibrant, valuable and effective they may have been. Most all of the local church bodies addressed in the New Testament no longer exist today.
What matters first and foremost is not what building we meet in and whether it is historic or brand spanking new. The reason that is true is because we may be an active part of a local congregation, meeting in a wonderful structure, and yet have that be fully meaningless in the final analysis. All that really matters is that we have, at some point, trusted Christ as our own Savior. He is the head of the universal church – the one made up of all who are spiritually born into His family through faith alone. And being a "church member" in this realm is what justifies the lost sinner and opens the door to heaven at life’s end.
Beautiful church buildings, old and new, are indeed a blessing. And belonging to a Bible-believing congregation is a great privilege and responsibility. But if you have never joined the church that is Christ’s universal body, you need to do that now! Simply trust in His ability to forgive sin and accept you into His eternal family. Do just as did the thief that died beside the Lord on the cross. In the very moment this lost soul recognized Christ as deity and trusted Him for salvation, he was granted forgiveness and his place in heaven forever. (Luke 23:43-44) That alone is what it is all about and alone brings the kind of blessing and church membership that lasts for all eternity!
"And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence." (Col 1:18)