Saturday, November 1, 2014

Is this THE church?

As I have said so often on this blog, it is the turn of a phrase, the cadence of a well crafted sentence, and the riches of a sparse but crafty paragraph that often set my mind going.  So it was when I read a woman's story of her consternation at finding out the gym was also the nave and chancel of a parish church.

The great thing about authentic architecture is that it speaks for itself.  In this case, a mid-century cinder-block school gymnasium begging to be released from the sacred work for which it was never made, the way an 80?s Toyota Corolla really does not want to be your moving van.

How many make do beginnings become the sum total of a parish's architectural home?  How many buildings out there beg to be released from their sacred work for which they were not constructed and now labor against all odds to house?  How many things do we do as church thinking that they are temporary only to find that they become permanent?  How many first stages end up being the only stage of a parish's dream and vision.

Winston Churchill famously said that we shape our buildings and then they shape us.  What do we want to shape us?  Why should our buildings end up enemies of the most important thing they house -- the Divine Service?  Why should all other functions of a space take priority over THE gathering of God's people on the Lord's Day around the Word and Table of the Lord? 

This woman got it right.  The budgetary choices we believe are forced to live with become the things that define us to each other and to the world outside the parish.  Who wants to belong to a bargain church?  Since when did a good deal trump all other reasons to buy or not to buy?  Down the road from me is a Lutheran congregation making its home in a former nightclub (the best term I could use in mixed company) and years later it is still a church feeling ill at ease on the stage where the band once played, sitting where the dance floor once beckoned, surrounded by mountains of brass rails in what were a couple of full service bars and booths.  I know of another that purchased a retail strip mall and rehabbed it into multipurpose space with some rental income on the side and people still say that is the church where Fred's used to be. 

Surely someone will argue with me that there were good reasons for buying these structures and trying to make them a home for the Divine Service and I am sure they are all steals of a deal... but how well do they really serve us?  When we are weekly reminded that we worship in a seedy bar, what does that do to celebration of the Divine Service?  When warehouse stark and bare is the architectural theme of the space where we eat and drink the Body and Blood of the Lord and hear His Word, what does that say about which of the functions that claim the space is more important?

Maybe it is the best we can do... I am not so sure.  We may settle for something thinking that the future will see better but so often it does not.  I remember a congregation we called "Dark Gethsemane" because it worshiped for several generations in the temporary space of their gym without windows.  I am not saying we have to be spendy here but I wonder if we are really saving much of anything by choosing to call the Church what everyone knows is a sleazy bar, closed discount store, or basketball court. Maybe we can do better?  I hope so. . .  Generations before us have bequeathed to us noble structures that are consistent with their purpose and are space with a virtue.  What will we bequeath to those who come after us?  I hope it is better than "Oh, yeah, that is the church that used to be strip club?!"

1. For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
2. Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
3. Oh, may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
4. O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
5. And when the fight is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
6. The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

7. But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
8.  From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

The great thing about authentic architecture is that it speaks for itself.  In this case, a mid-century cinder-block school gymnasium begging to be released from the sacred work for which it was never made, the way an 80′s Toyota Corolla really does not want to be your moving van. - See more at:


Janis Williams said...

Art and architecture are for all intents and purposes, dead in the Church today. The institution (i hate calling it that) which so richly supported the Arts and the artists along with it is now anti-Art. How many times have artisans (who have always struggled with income) faced the nadir of congrregations and yes, even pastors who denigrate them?

Art in the church building essentially disappeared with Calvins influence, but parisioners still had art in their homes. Today, Art is the same commercial, "useful," tee-shirt laden schlock as fast-food is commercial, fast, and easy. People are as uneducated about Art (architecture included) today, as they are Biblically illiterate.

Everyone thinks their tee shirt is contemporly art, but my contention is it is contemptable art.

Anonymous said...

Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says,

“‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord,
or what is the place of my rest?
Did not my hand make all these things?’"

Acts 7:48-50

Anonymous said...

The first time that people gathered to worship Christ on earth -- wasn't that in a stable?

God "sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)

Someone has observed that once a mission congregation that has been meeting in temporary quarters builds it's own church building, the character of the congregation changes. Where once the congregation was simply about God's love for the people and their love for one another, it becomes an institution with a facility and a mortgage. A beautiful structure may be a blessing, but not necessarily.

Anonymous said...

I'm wondering if worshiping Christ in a barn was the point of being born in a manger? Just because it did happen, would that mean we are supposed to do that now as the standard operating procedure? Just wondering. Thanks for your comments as it help me consider both sides of the discussion.

Anonymous said...

At the parish mentioned in this article, they are actively working to build a new church. I would highly encourage anyone and everyone to read this article from the parish's website: Here are some selections:

"We are building a new church in our parish, and to lead the effort I have been brushing up and thinking much about church architecture. Looking around at the dismal buildings which have been presented as Catholic churches over the last fifty years, one has to ask where on earth the architects, designers and liturgists have got their ideas....

"When it comes to whether the church should be beautiful or not, the building committee have adopted the doctrine of Judas: “Why should the money be spent on costly ointment when it could be given to the poor?” In other words, let’s cut out all that beautiful stuff. That’s expensive. We need a few statues and vestments, but cheap, mass produced stuff will do. However, too often, once the cheap choice is made they forget the idea that the money saved was to go to the poor, and they pocket the savings themselves....

"I have never understood why Christian architects agonize over the basic structure of a church when the Bible itself (which they are supposed to believe is inspired by God) has a whole section on church architecture. One only need read the twenty-fifth to thirtieth chapters of Exodus to see just how God wants his house to be built."