On April 17, 2019, millions of people, Christian and non, around the world were shocked, some devastated by the news of a fire that caused irreparable damage to the iconic, 850 year old Notre Dame Cathedral at the centre of Paris, France. One commentator suggested, “the heart of Paris has been scorched.” Shortly after the disaster, French President, Emmanuel Macron promised Parisians “we will rebuild this cathedral together.” Not surprisingly, a robust debate has ensued over the legitimacy of investing what one estimate suggests would be over one billion dollars for such an endeavor in light of other gripping needs facing not only Parisians, but the world in general. Regardless of where one stands on that specific issue, the tragic fire and subsequent loss of irreplaceable artifacts has been seen among many things as a metaphor of the essence of the church, and specifically I would suggest a flourishing congregation. Let me explain. One of the numerous images viewed by millions shows the cross of the main altar standing surrounded by the ashes and rubble in the aftermath. The symbol of that which is pivotal to the church’s existence, namely, the cross of Jesus, remained standing. I wonder if there is not a reminder in this of what flourishing may look like for some parishes or congregations. A flourishing congregation is not one that successfully avoids challenges, even tragedy. Rather it is one that maintains its grip on what is absolutely essential, and thus finds the strength to rise from the ashes, of whatever life may bring. Jesus promised that He would build His church in such a way that even the gates of Hell do not stand a chance against it. Sometimes we need to look for evidence of flourishing in the ashes.
What If Your Albatross is Your Offering?
In a recent Flourishing Congregations newsletter there was an article that caught my attention that suggested that congregations would be well placed to get rid of their old buildings and live out their missions elsewhere. While I understand where this is coming from, my provocation to you is this:
What if your building is your new mission; what if your albatross is your offering?
Congregations once built beautiful buildings for their large gatherings and used the offerings to keep these buildings up. Over time, these massive edifices became old, worn down and hard to upkeep; particularly as congregations dwindled, and thus so did the offerings.
So yes, the fastest way to solve this problem is to rid your congregation of the building, move to somewhere smaller, cheaper and in better repair and continue the work of worshipping God.
But what if the building is your new calling, the offering of your congregation to an increasingly broken world?
Loneliness and isolation are the diseases of modern times. People feel disconnected and rootless. Faced with increasing extreme weather events and the dwindling of networks of loose social connections which once sustained a community, people find themselves without a place to turn. What if the under used faith buildings became the new community centre, without reference to religious affiliation?
Across this country and throughout the U.S. and the U.K. congregations working in partnership with community are creating new centres of gathering, places for sport, art, health, meditation, poverty alleviation via food and housing and, yes, worship. They are vibrant cross-sectoral hubs in which many of the most Christian of values (love your neighbour, share what you are given, lift up the downtrodden) are being expressed on a daily basis.
In Toronto Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre for Faith, Justice and the Arts (a United congregation) shares their 44,000 square foot building with a wide variety of community groups from the International Socialists, to Dancing with Parkinsons, Tafelmusique Baroque Orchestra and three other congregations (including two Muslim). The building sees over 10,000 users per month who express it as a second home for them, a place of welcome, social gathering and support.
The Calvary Centre For Culture and Community in Philadelphia came into being after the United Methodist congregation expressed to the community that they could no longer carry the building alone. The community joined with them in creating a model for usage, upkeep and fundraising, with the church still actively at the centre. The Calvary Building is home to refugee groups, Twelve Step programs, the historic preservation society, art and cultural activities, peace and social justice organizations and several religious congregations.
St.Joseph’s -Kingsbridge in a rural area on Lake Huron, now runs as a community centre that occasionally holds non-denominational services of worship. After the Catholic Diocese could no longer provide a priest to St. Joseph’s-Kingsbridge, they sold the building for $1 to the former congregation who took it on as a secular community centre. It now runs card games, retirements parties, exercise classes and concerts and rents out the former manse to Lake Huron vacationers. While they have lost the primary function as a house of worship, the purposes of the church as a place for support and gathering live on in its new function.
While there are further examples from Canada and abroad, I bring the previous three forward as models because
All three models are fully sustaining the buildings.
I believe that congregations and their organizing bodies need to consider how they can honour the trust that they have held for so long on behalf of community. There are very few buildings designed for large scale public gathering, without mortgages to pay, in the hands of Not For Profit entities. What are we called to do with them and how can we create the appropriate partnerships to ensure that these trusts continue to be held for the common good?
When Notre Dame was burning people were divided into two schools of thought:“How could we allow the loss of this stunning heritage site which enriches the world?” and “How could we allow funders to spend so much on a building and ignore the problems of humanity?”
Yes. Both of these things. We cannot make the buildings our false gods, worshipped above the common good. But if we can put them to use for the broader common good, engaging with community at large rather than cashing in our assets, why wouldn’t we?
No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place
If you have ever pondered any of the following: are there really “sacred” places? Will the rise of “virtual” places minimize the importance of or need for real, three dimensional places? Does architecture enable us to engage in place? Or how important is place to God? Then I would highly recommend Leonard Hjalmarson’s book, No Home Like Place: A Christian Theology of Place (Urban Loft Publishers, 2014). This is a well-researched dialogue between theology and culture that is biblical, insightful and relevant for the Church and for our fragmented post-Christian culture.
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