Some places up north, the ground is frosty in the winter time. If you want to dig a hole, you wait until the spring thaw. Even farther north, one might find permafrost. If you want to dig there, get your jackhammer or wait until Global Warming progresses.
Sometimes our churches are like permafrost. In his book Bishop, Will Willimon observes:
We build our churches to look at least two hundred years older than they are. Inside, the pews are bolted down, heavy and substantial. That the world around the church is chaotic and unstable is further justification for the church to be fixed and final.
As good steward of our money, we like to build our church buildings so they last forever. The more sturdy and inflexible the better, it seems. In light of the coming Death Tsunami, these blessed buildings will be one of the two things that do us in (the other being expensive full-time pastors).
Since I moved to a teaching job in January, I’ve had the occasion to visit several churches, sometimes as congregant, sometimes as guest preacher. I’ve been pained to see not only how empty the churches are, but how weighted the attendance is toward the back of the sanctuary. We built these large sanctuaries many years ago, when attendance was higher. We picked our pews and staked out our territory. I guess the area closer to the front was unhealthy, since most of those folks seem to have moved on to glory, leaving mostly the folks in the back.
When I preach, I wander. I move around. I go where the people are. If they’re sitting in the back, I go back to where they are. In conversation afterward, a few of the people talk about the phenomenon. They lament how hard it is to get people to move forward. One suggestion offered was to rope off the back pews. I didn’t think that would work. Removing the back pews altogether would be more successful. Then who people could sit in the back while still being closer to the front.
But that’s not the solution either. Why do people sit in the back? Some might sit there for an easier escape. Some sit in the back, finding that an easier way to accommodate their disruptive children. Others might be uncomfortable being too close to the divine action they take to be happening in front. My own reason for sitting in the back (see – I’m not just picking on other people!) is that I can see what’s happening from that angle. If I’m leading worship, I’m up front and can see. If I’m not leading, I can see best from the back. Maybe other folks are thinking that way too.
But why can’t we accommodate all these needs by eliminating no man’s land, the expanse of empty pews between the altar area and where people want to sit? Well, as Bishop Willimon notes, our old buildings are solid, dependable, and designed to be inflexible. As he notes, the world is chaotic. Many seek a safe haven, a place where they can find the comfort of constancy and predictability.
Which constancy? Which predictability? That’s the important question. The church is not up for grabs. In a constantly changing culture it’s not our call to contort ourselves to the every passing fancy of that culture. We’re called to offer Jesus, in word, deed and life. That much ought to be consistent. Offering Jesus may not be easy: we’re sinners, after all. Offering Jesus may not be popular: they crucified him when he originally offered himself. His original apostles experienced more societal abuse than acceptance.
We’re constant. We’re comfortable. We’re stable. Not in the way that people can be sure of finding Jesus, but in the way of being mostly sidelined and ignored.
What’s the answer? I see a couple of things that would help.
First, we need to become less building-centered. Given our huger investment in buildings (and their maintenance), that’ll be tough. But perhaps at least in our newer churches we can start finding ways to use temporary buildings (if we need buildings).
Second, we need to develop more ministry away from the building. Sometimes this will be in our workplaces. Sometimes it will be in our homes and neighborhoods. Wherever we do it, we need to be less defined by our buildings.
Third, and most importantly, we need a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We need God to do a work in our midst that marginalizes our buildings and our dependence on them. The world doesn’t need another experience with a beautiful and profound building. The worlds needs Jesus.