I’ve filled and tossed nearly 40 calendars since I first became aware of the presence of Christ. The world has changed dramatically since then. On any given Sunday back in the day, from where I lived in the U District, I could have easily walked to one of six or seven imposing structures to join in worship. All the “old-growth,” Protestant denominations were represented – Methodist, Lutheran, Congregational, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian – as well as a gorgeous Catholic church just a few blocks farther away. Each of these structures sat solidly on the corners of their respective blocks proclaiming their presence in bold relief from the smaller structures around them. I may not have known what was happening inside, but I knew they were there and always would be.
Except they aren’t there anymore, not all of them at least. Over the past five years or so, I have watched as several of these once imposing structures have been clawed to destruction by hydraulic excavators. Every brick and beam torn down and hauled away; chancels, spires, pews and potluck tables loaded for land-fill. The very foundations removed from the earth to make way for something else, something more useful, something more needed. Each demolition taking a part of me with it. Most of them, I never even entered. But I know at least some of what had taken place there.
Over the years, lives had been lived and lost. Babies baptized into new life and new community. Young couples coupling up, promising to care for one another through sickness and health. Grandmas and toddlers and students and teachers and vagrants and venture capitalists gathering around the Lord’s Table, receiving the bread and the wine, the body and blood of their forgiveness and hope. Broken human beings sipping thin coffee from styrofoam cups, looking for a little love, a little strength for the day. Old-timers just dropping in to say hello; homeless dropping in to get warm. Outside those walls people marched in the streets, businesses popped up and petered out, wars raged around the world, occasional lapses of peace broke out, hairstyles and politicians came and went. But year after year, those citadels of a centuries-old faith sat impervious.
Except they weren’t. For all sorts of reasons, fewer and fewer people walked through the doors and took a seat on Sundays, or any other days. Fewer and fewer people felt compelled to gather in those spaces to find God or goodness. Fewer and fewer copies of the bulletin were needed each week, fewer and fewer stamps needed to be bought for mailings, new members classes needed fewer and fewer chairs. Until one day, the remnant looked around and realized, no one will really miss us if we’re gone.
Most any pastor I know would try to encourage me with the bromide that “the ‘church’ is not the building, it’s the people.” And, yes, that’s true; I’ve used that line myself. But anyone attentive to the spirit can also tell you that places and spaces absorb the energy of those who fill them and radiate the energy of what has taken place there. These structures gave visual voice to the beliefs providing purpose and solace for those who worshipped there. And whether those passing by on the roads or sidewalks shared those same beliefs, all could tell that these structures stood for something solid.
Except they don’t anymore. I write this in part as a lament for all that has been lost in the scraping away of any evidence of what had been. I treasure the love and hope and strength I found having ventured through the doors of one of those citadels; I grieve for those who might have found the same but will now need to find it elsewhere.
if it means that those who mistook an imposing edifice for a worthy faith will have their mistake destroyed as well, tear it down.
If it means that those who arrogantly ignored the suffering on the streets around them must now move among those who suffer, tear it down.
If it means that money spent on keeping the pews warm for a handful of humans in a cavernous space can now be spent on keeping a handful of humans alive even in a temporary space, tear it down.
If it means the destruction of the idols that led some to believe they were better than others because they had been “saved,” tear it down.
If it means recognizing “Christianity” not as a citadel, or a club, or a curiosity but as a life of communion with Christ, caring for those in need, confronting those in comfort, living in humility and service, tear it down. Tear them all down.
Start over. Start anew. Start from scratch from the soil below and see what grows.