A million years ago when I was but a boy living on the plains of Nebraska, I heard about a neighboring Lutheran congregation which was getting ready to build a new church. Their old building, like nearly every church building in small town Nebraska, was a white frame structure, simple in design, with a bell tower over the front door and a small bump out in the back for the altar. There are proper terms for all of these things but somehow it seems presumptuous to apply them to the white, frame church structures I speak of.
It was an exciting day for them. The new building would be brick and stone, modern and strikingly different than the white frame sanctuaries that were all so familiar to us. It was exciting to me, also, until they sold their old building and it was moved away. It had been split down the middle and each half hauled unceremoniously to a farm, a farm that was on the road to my own Lutheran church, a few miles outside of town, just off a county gravel road, surrounded by corn fields and pasture land. The building had been bought by a farmer to be "recycled" before recycling was "in." But in this case it was being recycled as a hog house. The steeple had mercifully been removed but the gentle arched windows and its familiar architectural style could not disguise what it had been. A house of God had become a house of pigs -- literally.
Thankfully, the county cut back maintenance on some roads and we gradually stopped using that route every week on our trip to Golgotha Lutheran Church (one of very few so named). I was glad. I did not have to view the indignity that had befallen this once noble structure. It was out of sight but not out of mind.
Now we are going on 50 years later and the prairies and rural areas of the Mid-west are literally filled with dead or dying congregations -- not for lack of spirit or money or desire, but a lack of people. The average age of a farmer in my hometown is near 70. The once bustling main street is left with one grocery store where there were two, no produce buyers for eggs and milk where there had been three or four, one cafe where there had been several eating places... and the list goes on. My father, now 83, still goes to work every day at the hardware store he has owned for more than 50 years, continuing a business that has been at that location for a century or more.
But it is not only the prairie that suffers. Thousands of dead, dying, or abandoned churches dot the inner city and first ring of suburbs around urban areas throughout this country. The Roman Catholic Church has closed more than I know and is still consolidating and closing parishes. The end result is that we have buildings whose unmistakable past cries out "House of God" but who are presently either empty or being used for "other" purposes. Some of them laudable (housing, museums, community centers, etc.) and others less noble (night clubs, strip bars, etc.) and still others as businesses of various kinds (noble? ignoble?). If you want, you can shop for them and buy them on eBay! Always a bargain to be had -- complete with descriptions, pictures, and a pay pal address to send your money.
My point is not that churches should not ever be closed. I am not even arguing that the buildings should never be recycled. I am lamenting those situations in which a "house of God" becomes a "house of pigs" -- in one form or another. It is a blight upon all that a church building is set apart for; though I know that these buildings were in some form or another "de-consecrated" you cannot erase the architectural markers that identified what this facility was built for or forget the labors of those whose money, bricks, and prayers turned the dream of a house for prayer into reality. I just wish that we were able to prevent some of those less honorable uses for these structures -- perhaps it is better to tear them down than to allow their use to send the mix messages of what was and what is at the same address.
Alas, it may not be a problem faced in the future. The buildings erected and used by so many today are more like warehouses than churches. Perhaps this is a temporary problem. I have no answers... but I live with the regrets... that began when a white frame structure, much like the one in which I worshiped as a child and which still houses my home congregation, became a hog house...