Christendom has left us with an heritage of large buildings that rarely are full to capacity and that cost extraordinary amounts to heat and maintain. For the shrinking congregations who remain in these buildings the struggles are vast and ongoing. They need new members and yet are faced with a society that while still somewhat spiritual, no longer feels the need to walk through the door.
And while we may repeat (sometimes with guarded hearts) that the church is not the building but the people, we cannot ignore the existence of the building. Its size, its prominent location won’t allow us.
I’ve heard Saint John being referred to as city with many steeples due to the number of huge architectural masterpieces that crowd together in or very near to the central peninsula of the city. The buildings speak of a time where the shipbuilding industry was in full force. When there was enough wealth and ready expertise to build these lavish sites and when there were enough people to fill them and enough division to justify needing so many churches.
The reality now is quite different. Of these many steeples, one has become a Theatre Arts centre, one has become a transitional residence for homeless youth, and one sits empty year after year with the hope of one day being turned into upscale condos. Our own Stone Church underwent an extensive renovation, knocking down the mold infested hall and renovating the interior of the church proper to create a fresh multi-purpose space.
But hiding behind these closures, repurposes and renovations is a much greater question that, for those of us who represent traditional and historical denominations, is actually frightening to ask: Do we need churches?
For some of my friends the whole structure of the church is incomprehensible. The religious systems, the massive buildings, the written and unwritten rules, the musty language, and the formality seem to all complicate what is really a simple desire to connect to God. Why “do” church when we can just talk to God on our own and in our own time?
The early version of communities of Christians gathering together, that we see from the book of Acts and from various early writings, point to churches as places where people are encouraged and instructed in their faith and where personal and economic support is free-flowing. These were people who as well as being bold in their faith, were highly involved in each other’s lives. They valued sharing food and resources, they loved and fought like a close-knit family. The result of all this we are told is that “The Lord added to their number day by day” 1. – meaning that people were drawn to these communities and their faith that involved the whole person.
David Bentley Hart writes: “we know from sources both pagan and Christian that many of the essentials of Christian belief were open to all who cared to learn of them, and that the distinctive behavior of Christians – including temperance, gentleness, lawfulness, and acts of supererogatory kindness – not only was visible to their neighbours outside the faith but constituted a large part of the new faith’s appeal.” 2.
There are signs of this kind of Christianity, even in our large stone and brick buildings. I saw it the other day as a the wife of a retired priest lovingly spoon fed a member of the congregation with parkinson’s. I see it in the sudden provision of needed items, in members who take the time to get to know those on the margins of our community whether at a drop-in or at the church’s free laundry program, and in the general desire to be there for others and offer support.
But as we imagine what the church may look like, I dream of more. For it seems that no matter how much we care, the heating and maintaining of these monstrous buildings keep nagging at the back of our minds. Financial constraints keep determining how much we are truly willing to do. And the much harder truth is that in the name of boundaries our own fears cause us to withdraw from those we are most called to share our lives with. But if our faith communities are to be places of life that draw others, we may have to shed some of these things that are holding us down and remember our original purpose.
A few weeks ago we gathered as a group of friends around a woman who is facing some unstable circumstances in her life. Over the course of a few hours we set goals together, promised to help support her, ate together, and listened as she shared about her life and her dreams. Since then we have taken her to appointments, or to get groceries, but most importantly we’ve spent time just being with her, learning from her tenacity and hope. And I wonder what would happen if groups like this formed around a number of others in our community who need a bit more support, and a bit more human contact. Perhaps then people would see the point of the church, not because we have big pretty buildings, but because we have expansive souls. And perhaps we will come to recognize the churches that are already around us, but that don’t have walls or electricity bills, but that are formed around the faith and love of those who gather in the name of Christ, our Lord, who descended into greatness.
By Jasmine Chandra