Thursday, December 10, 2009

Selling the House of God

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...

9 comments:

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

If it consoles you any - think in terms of quality of workmanship. Will anyone want to buy these new, cheaply built by the lowest bidder buildings that we have now, or will it be better just to start fresh? Those old white frame churches had craftmanship and were built to last - the wooden lintels in my 101 year old building are testament to that. You couldn't build this building now -- and I think it's structure might out last the new building the Baptists just put up in town.

christl242 said...

Well, I was very surprised at my former Catholic parish to hear the deacon refer to the church building as "just a building." Yes, properly speaking the "ekklesia" is made up of the living stones, the Body of Christ, but what a paradigm shift in the self-understanding of the RC which once saw the church and its ecclesiastical appointments as a sort of sacrament since it housed the tabernacle containing the Real Presence and was the site of holy events such as baptisms, Communions, etc.

Of course, churches are "de-consecrated" when they no longer serve that purpose but they should still be treated with respect. Turning them into strip clubs, etc. just doesn't seem right.

Christine

Pr. Jeremiah Gumm said...

This is a bit off-topic, but was Golgotha Lutheran Church in Wausa, Nebraska? A couple years ago, I ministered to an elderly gentleman whose father served as pastor of that congregation from 1926 until sometime in the 1940s or 1950s or so. He recalled that the church was named Golgotha because it was on a hill. If that is the church to which you refer, small world.

Thanks for your post.

Pr. Jeremiah Gumm

Randy Bosch said...

I agree wholeheartedly with your article,
Except that I would rather have a deconsecrated church (appropriately modified) turned into a "house of pigs" than into yet another "ignoble" purpose - temples for idolators and heretics claiming to be a "house of god" run by false teachers - something that happens too often in urban/suburban areas.

Pastor Peters said...

Yes, it was Golgotha Lutheran Church, Wausa, NE, and that Pastor would probably be George Pullmann who was there from the 1940s on and he is buried in the church cemetery. His sons were/are Pastors and one of them, Martin, was campus pastor at St. Johns College, Winfield, and he is responsible for getting me there. BTW the church building that ended up on the farm was from Immanuel, Osmond, NE...

Pastor Peters said...

Or, if we are talking the 1950s, it could have been Pastor Oesch, who baptized me...

Anonymous said...

It's sad. Couldn't a current Lutheran church purchase it and make something of a historical museum of it?

May God, through Word and Sacrament, build His church, that we would not have un-needed buildings, but that every one would be filled to capacity, containing people hearing the only life-saving message.

Pr. Jeremiah Gumm said...

The pastor must've been George Pullmann. I ministered to his son Elmer, who years ago was a fairly successful businessman in a variety of fields, and who now enjoys the glories of heaven. During my first visit with him, he gave me his autobiography appropriately titled, "Putting Out the Fleece". That's how I found out about Golgotha in Wausa, NE. Thanks again for sharing and have a blessed Advent!

Pastor P. said...

I'm sorry this comment comes so late. I stumbled across your blog accidentally while doing a google search. George Pullmann is my Grandfather. Martin and Elmer are two of my uncles. Ten children of George and Hilda survived into adulthood. My Father is Al, whose whole pastoral ministry was in Montana before he died in 1993. He often referred to life in Wausa during his growing-up years. He started a short-lived preaching station. When it closed the walls were cut off at the base, pushed into the basement, covered with soil and returned to farmland.