The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Wrestling with our edifice complex

There were three Roman Catholic churches shuttered in one week recently in Bridgeport, Conn., and among mainline Protestant churches across the nation, it's one sad demise at a time. Most recently: the Episcopal cathedral in Wilmington, Del.

It's always the same scenario: expensive building and declining membership, inadequate financial support, aging congregation and insufficient flow of new members.

I wonder if church leaders will ever see the connection. They allowed a building to define them. They poured resources into bricks and mortar and drove off those who were seeking God, not yesterday's construction project. They worked hard to raise funds — for a building, not for a mission.

They became like a family that had no purpose unless they were eating dinner at a certain table. They saw themselves as a "worshiping congregation," not a faith community. They existed to gather in a certain place for liturgy. It mattered intensely to them, but to no one else.

We're going to hear this sad scenario again and again. An estimated one-half to two-thirds of mainline denomination congregations are no longer viable as long as they insist on inhabiting inherited facilities. If that happens, the progressive Christian movement in America will be hollowed out, depriving American culture and politics of a vital voice.

And it's all because yesterday's wealth paid for lovely buildings and today's congregants made an idol of those facilities. They failed to see that times had changed, people needed something else, and keeping old doors open was both futile and unimportant.

Church leaders need to read Exodus and the wilderness wandering. When the Hebrews stopped for the night, they made camp. Those camps were never more than temporary. Their destination was Canaan, a land they had never seen, not the particular land they occupied for a night.

So, too, with Jesus, who kept his people moving, not settling. They were sent out to transform lives, not to plant facilities on street corners.

Too many Christians have sought a permanence that was never God's promise to them, pouring their lives and resources into stopping, not moving. They found pride in stained glass and age-darkened wood, not in transformed lives. They made the rituals of settledness — eucharist at a certain altar, preaching from a certain pulpit, generations gathered in time-honored venues — more important than the breaking of new ground, touching of new lives, seeking of God's new call, greeting God's new day.

Change became the enemy, and a God who has always been about change was frozen out. New generations that were seeking that God went elsewhere. The permanence that some considered their holy duty became, instead, their death knell.

What now? This is a question many institutions are asking. Bricks-and-mortar colleges find themselves stuck with unsustainable campuses. Businesses find their large stores no longer attract customers in an age of online retail. Suburban housing developers carry unsold inventory as people choose urban living. Libraries struggle to house books in an age of online research and electronic readers.

Each of these transitions is greeted as loss, failure, even betrayal. Few have the heart to close a campus or give away books. I wish faith communities could show the way and say to the perplexed, "Friends, these were temporary shelters. Life is onward. Transformation is our purpose. We have each other and holy purpose, and that — more than any building — is what matters." 


Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 1:30 pm (U.S. Eastern) 11/8/2011

Aha! I don' t know if you're reading this, but you have voiced exactly some of the thoughts I've been thinking.

I grew up with the idea of the church as a "worshipping congregation," and still don't quite see the difference between that and a "faith community." I'm wondering when the shift occurred from the focus on the worshipping congregation whose members are inspired to go out and do good in the world to a focus on the faith community whose corporate mission is to, as Steve Jobs once said, "put a dent in the universe."

Moreover, I wonder, isn't there room for both interpretations? Does it have to be either/or? As we try to reach those for whom a certain liturgy in a certain place doesn't matter, do we have to abandon those for whom it does? Isn't there still room for those to whom a certain liturgy, a certain style, a certain feel, and...a certain theology make all the difference?

Note: Keith Gatling edited this post at 1:42 pm on 11/8/2011.

Posted at 11:54 pm (U.S. Eastern) 11/8/2011

Tom, you are without question keenly attuned to the pride of material possession that configures so many mainstream western congregations and denominations. I often wonder if we build here on earth out of fear that we won't be remembered after we pass into Christs hands without an earthly physical monument to be left behind.

Outreach and service is such a vibrant force in the growth of faith institutions in places like South Sudan, and in virtually all of sub-Saharan Africa that when I ask them if they plan to construct a church building, the reply is often "WHY?". I see congregations in the bush of South Sudan that meet under Mango trees, where services do not even begin until everyone who arrives is personally greeted by EVERY SINGLE PERSON who has arrived before them, hours spent joyfully mingling before liturgy begins.

Even in major cities (Kampala for example) the biggest church buildings are modest by western standards. The largest Roman congregation in Kampala is seated in a sanctuary that holds maybe 500 people. Yet each of the three Sunday services has more than 3,000 worshippers. Loudspeakers are placed in intersections and are wired into the sancuary. Hymns are announced and sung from memory or very worn, shared pieces of paper. No one needs to re-route traffic because cars either stop and join in, or simply bypass the throngs on other streets.

Babies and infants are held by whomever is closest when mama has her hands full. The term "Sunday Best" is humbling because so many are in tatters, clean tatters, but tatters none-the-less. The children are scrubbed and polished until they shine. Shyly, they are a source of great pride to their families, as are the elderly and lame. At some of the services, one of the worshippers, a man of about 35, was obviously mentally impaired. He was totally naked, and totally accepted. His voice was strong and joyful, and sometimes on key. He was warmly welcomed by all, treated with kindness and respect, and I had the sense of how naked we can be dressed in our sense of self-righteousness, while this man was clothed in the rich garments of acceptance by his community. And this is not in the bush, but in Kampala, a sophisticated city of 500,000 people.

Thank you Tom.

"Papa" Maury Clark Hobart, WA

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 3:33 am (U.S. Eastern) 11/11/2011

But Maury, this brings us back to my question of what is the nature of church. Is it education and worship or is it service and outreach? Can it be both? Does it have to be one or the other? Can the two different expressions coexist?

And again, if it's service and outreach, then did things change without a lot of us knowing it, or were we just not paying attention in the first place?

Maybe it had always been both, but the proportions of each have changed slowly and imperceptibly over the years, so that now we're all going "Hey! What happened?"

Posted at 4:14 pm (U.S. Eastern) 11/13/2011

Keith, you make a pair of valid points: that community worship and service outreach do co-exist, but that perhaps proportions have changed.

It is no great leap when owning a building to where, very quickly, the building owns us. Add to that our seeing the edifice as validation of our successful Christian call then, indeed, proportions have changed.

Ever bigger congregations growing primarily for growths sake risk minimizing service and outreach. Sadly, we easily can be swayed by the argument that inward service to members just like us is the primary reason for our existence.

Metaphorically, the building then owns us.

Keith Gatling

Keith Gatling

Posted at 1:28 am (U.S. Eastern) 11/15/2011

Ah, Maury, I see an amusing paradox here. You mention that we can be swayed by the argument that inward service to members just like us is the primary reason for our existence. And yet, as an "outsider," as a "non-Cradle Lutheran," I was attracted to the LCA, and later ELCA by what I saw of it at the time. What you were then pulled me in. Maybe your "inward service" in 1979 was the outward service that this person needed.

30-odd years later, it seems odd, and almost like I'd been taken by a "bait and switch" to hear us talking about possibly becoming more like what I was trying to leave, in order to reach more people. Surely there are people like me out there who need what the ELCA has to offer...as it is.

I visit Northeastern PA on a regular basis, and have passed Lutheran church after Lutheran church, sometimes within three blocks of each other, that just can't seem to bite the bullet and decide that it's time for them to merge. That the area can't support that many congregations anymore. The demographics have changed.

And I say this remembering when the Episcopal church I grew up in bit the bullet, and merged with another one across town.

I think that too often we make a virtue of someone else's necessity, without thinking of the practical reasons why we do things the way we do. I'm think of this in reference to your comments on the church in Africa. But it's late, and brain cells are shutting down even as I type this. So that's an issue that will have to be dealt with another day.

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