Are pews and steeples necessary for God’s people?
In 2014, I was fortunate to be able to attend the Greenbelt festival in Cheltenham England as part of a delegation of people under thirty five from the United Church of Canada. While I’ve since passed that young-ish threshold as established by my denomination, I will never forget the experience of faith I encountered there.
While Greenbelt is an annual gathering of thousands of people from around the world and has frequently taken place in the same location, it has moved from time to time. Can you imagine the logistical nightmare?
Have you ever changed the location of your Sunday morning worship service? What happened? Did the same twenty thousand people come from around the world? :o)
Could everyone see, hear and sit comfortably? Could they find the coffee pot and the washroom? Did everyone clamour “Let’s do this again next week!” or was the response a little more…muted? I think the response says a lot about a congregation’s culture and identity.
Space matters when it comes to spirit. It has always been thus in the Christian tradition. Where we do what we do is buried deep in our ancestral bones. It imprints us with meaning and identity perhaps as much as prayer and praise.
This truth rings true in Western Christianity as it seems definitively woven into the Canadian experience. When I think of how many church buildings have either disbanded (ceased to exist) or amalgamated in the Maritime Conference of my denomination, there’s been far more of the former than the latter.
In my own pastoral charge (parish) during the late 1980’s, two of the three congregations closed their buildings and attempted to knit their fishing nets together. It’s a tricky business as Peter and Paul have shown us.
Some twenty years afterward, I’m amazed at the people I still visit who identify solely with the former building and have ceased to “go to church” at all. For several of them, when the doors of a particular building closed, so did their witness in public worship.
We go to the movies. We go to the mall. We go for coffee. In the West we go for something in return, and thus we go to church and not just any church, but my church.
There’s a reason our ancestors made the sign of the fish and met at particular times in particular places – they witnessed in a time when their faith could forfeit their lives. Sanctuary was a place of safety, whether it be a house or on a field or beside the lakeshore.
Today these sanctuaries are a lot bigger, more expensive and difficult to maintain but they are imbued with baptisms, Christmas Eve pageants, funerals, weddings and countless other rites of religious passage that bind faith to a particular location and time.
Place gives power to the romance of cultural and social nostalgia that binds a community together. No wonder our religious edifices can be at once both a stone around our neck and a foundation beneath our feet.
As mainline denominations struggle with an organization infrastructure designed for a bygone era, moving out from under the steeple isn’t easy for God’s people. The sign of resurrection is surely the empty tomb, but the gospel narratives are decidedly skimpy on the details of that rolling stone.
As the mainline church strives to emerge from the graveside of a fallen Christendom in a multicultural and diverse Canada, does place still have the same power to constitute a community of faith? Is our expression of Christianity so bound to buildings that we can’t conceive of a religious life evolving beyond them?
What if you could plant a church without a building? I’m not talking about meeting in a cinema or a high school gymnasium or a store front church. I mean no particular place because it is possible in every place.
Would such a community wither on the vine without the root of a foundation and steeple? Could it grow not just in a neighbourhood but an entire region?
What if it didn’t have a minister, an administrator, a board or a list of committees requiring an ecclesial translator to decipher the meaning and purpose of their jabberwocky acronym jargon?
That’s one of the many questions I have for “Be.”, an emerging ministry within the Maritime Conference of the United Church of Canada. It started from the experience of our regional annual meeting.
It turns out that when you get people together in a hockey rink instead of a church building, God only knows what can ensue. Conga lines of singing, prayer circles of healing, a full piece worship band sharing music that spans the globe and not just a hymn book – and the single largest gathering of youth in our church.
From that annual worship experience has sprung deep hunger pains for something that many, but not solely, our younger sisters and brothers in Christ were hankering for. After experiencing an inclusive culture with few borders of experimentation in worship and liturgy, how was it a colleague of mine put it? You can’t put the rabbit back in the hole.
What if you didn’t have to worry about whether worship was “contemporary” or “traditional”? What if you didn’t have to struggle about piano or organ? What if you didn’t have to tussle with the worship committee about the merits of projection or whether contemporary music can easily be translated to quench the questing Christian’s soul?
All such conversations are surely important, but the opportunity to move beyond them is equally desirable for many leaders and searchers alike.
The easiest way to describe “Be.” is that it’s a verb instead of a noun. As an expression of church it isn’t a particular building that comes to mind – it’s possible all across Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and PEI.
We held our events on Friday nights. It’s amazing what happens when you’re not bound to Sunday at 11am. Musicians who would never be able to play together, jammed. People gathered from vastly different pews that had never sat together, broke bread, shared stories of faith, and stood together. The guest speakers were not ministers, but everyday people struggling and giving thanks for their unique experience of faith and spirituality.
We plan to hold our events everywhere from corner coffee shops to farmer’s markets to public squares. They take place every few months and feature food, worship, and deeper conversation than often seems challenging in the sixty minutes or less commandment of so much mainline protestant worship.
We planted leadership teams that advertised locally inside and outside our traditional communities of faith and watched to see what would sprout. The results of our first round of events were profound and inspiring. It was also not without a steep learning curve and many challenges.
In my next post, I’ll detail how the first event Halifax transpired and what we learned from it. In the meantime, take a second and visit www.be-maritimes.org to learn more.
Can a community of people who share neither pew nor steeple flourish?
I’m looking forward to finding out.