Not a building

In the last couple weeks I have heard or read people talking about “church campuses.” By that they mean the buildings that make up a church. I was also listening to someone speak about how all these large church buildings were built in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. I wonder what these campuses have to do with the future of the church.

Building those campuses was probably a huge sign of hope and growth for the people who built them, but these days seem to be a little different. I work in a congregation that just slashed a large amount of money from their budget, cutting their staff down to a pastor, a part time office administrator, and a part time choir director. There isn’t much to cut after that, if you’re going to keep your building.

Keeping the building seems to be the largest priority, and I wonder at what point that changes for people. I know of a church in San Francisco who made a different kind of choice. They decided they didn’t want their budget and ministry priorities to be compromised and taken up by physical plant issues anymore, so they sold their building. Now they meet in other kinds of spaces, and are more free to be the church they believe they are called to be.

Perhaps we are moving to a day when church will be understood as something different than a building. Perhaps the “property committee” will be in charge of making sure that the things needed for worship get packed up in a couple of totes to be unpacked next time worship happens.

This would certainly mean some mourning, as churches have stood as cornerstones in neighborhoods for decades in some places, centuries in others. People have seen them as resting places and places of prayer. But they are also increasingly empty.

Church campuses can also be barriers for people. I stood outside of the church I work at last week, listening to a man talk about the 40 years he had been absent from church. He never had any issue with God, but he finds the buildings dedicated to God difficult to walk in.

The question is, if we lose our buildings, is the church dead? What if we got to put to death these things:

    • Yearly conversations about how to pay the mortgage
  • Staff and program cuts so that we can pay for a new furnace, new roof, new plumbing, new carpet, etc.
  • Strong feelings about banners/stained glass/church furniture based not on God but on the people who paid for them
  • Carpet color wars
  • Kitchen guarding (you know, the people who only think certain things should be touched in the kitchen, or who think only certain people should be allowed to use the kitchen)
  • Conversations about locking doors, putting in alarm systems, and other security measures that seem antithetical to the Gospel

Maybe it means resurrection. Perhaps there is new life and freedom to be found beyond the building.

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Cast me gently into morning

On Easter each year I set my alarm for a few minutes before sunrise so that I can listen to this song by Sarah Mclachlan, Answer. One year I heard this song during holy week, and I heard these words in an entirely new way:

“Cast me gently into morning

For the night has been unkind.

Take me to a place so holy

That I can wash this from my mind–

the memory of choosing not to fight.”

All of a sudden I was thinking of the stories of Jesus on the cross, and the coming Easter morning. One of the ways I understand the cross is that Jesus was put to death for rebelling against authorities and teaching strange things that people didn’t understand and felt threatening to their way of life–especially those in power. And he chose to not fight, so that he didn’t participate in the systems of death and power. He couldn’t participate in those systems he spoke against, or none of it would make any sense. He had to live and die in a different way.

One year I saw Sarah Mclachlan in concert, and she introduced this song by saying she had written the chorus years ago and never had any verses, and she furthermore didn’t know what the song was about. From up in the balcony of Benaroya Hall, I wanted to shout. I know! I know what it’s about! It’s about death and resurrection. It’s about this story of Jesus on the cross, and people yelling up at him: “If you are the son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross” (Matthew 25:40). Its about going through the hell of all that rejection and pain and choosing not to fight. It’s about Easter morning and rising up from that death into life. It’s about the Holy.

And, as she sings in the verses of the song, “It will all be worth it—worth it in the end.”

(This year, sunrise in Denver is at 6:32 AM, when this was posted. I’ll be up way before that.)