I feel like I apologize to you every time I post now, Reader, for my erratic schedule and the lull between postings; I can tell you that I’ll post this and then be back for my usual Advent Christmas carols shtick. This semester is taking the mickey out of me in ways I really did not see coming at all; I will be so very glad when it’s over. To be honest, I’ll be very glad when this degree is over, which is super unfortunate. But the upshot of being here in the Wicket Gate is that I work at a pretty amazing church.
It’s an old church, as in over a century old (which is old for Americans; I know that’s laughable for Europeans, but cut us some slack, we’re young). Being old means that there’s a lot of repair that has to happen. Right now our main front doors are gone because water had warped the bottoms of these thick wooden masterpieces, so there’s a beautiful Good Shepherd stained glass window hanging out over a bunch of plywood. It looks pretty awful, and it confuses the crickets out of visitors, but I was thinking the other day about what it must look like from the street.
Oh, what a shame, some driver may be thinking, another beautiful old church closed down and falling apart. Because those boarded-up doors make it seem like we’ve thrown in the towel, for sure. The thing of it is that they are the exact opposite—those plywood planks are the showcase of our growth, our fiscal health, our connectivity (paid for by a grant from our denomination), our stewardship of the building, our desire to make sure we are able to welcome people to this house of God. Our boarded-up doors are symbols of our being alive, not dead, and I wonder what that looks like when speaking of the larger Church.
I have very little patience left for folks who bemoan the death of the Christian Church and even less for the people (like a classmate of mine, recently) who say that the Church should die because it’s outdated. Nope. The Church is not dying, not by a long shot. Christianity is a truly global religion represented on every continent, with over two billion believers. It is the largest organized religion on the planet.
Now I know, Christianity doesn’t necessarily equal the Church. But the Church is its most cohesive vehicle. The Christian Church is the community that goes out and fights for justice, that works for peace, that stands with people suffering from natural and human disasters. The Church is the community that gathers to stay strong in faith, to challenge ourselves to live godly lives, to reach deeper into the mind-bending compassion of God to be able to see each other—and ourselves—in love.
It is also the community that is wrapped up in colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia, a million different kinds of discrimination, power grabs, ageism, judgment, and oppression. We, the Church, do not have clean hands. But that does not mean God is done with us. My church, my century+ church, definitely has things it needs to deal with about how we interact with each other and our community, and I pray mightily that we acknowledge those things and open ourselves to God’s ability to change us and speak through us to the hurt and the aching need for hope here in the Wicket Gate. Yet I also pray mightily that we may continue the growth that we are doing, both the quantifiable and the completely unquantifiable. We are a constant work in progress, thank God, as is the larger Church.
Certain parts of it must change. That is undeniable, and unsurprising, because no living thing is ever permanently stagnant. It would die. So when folks talk about how the Church is dying because it’s changing, I wonder at their definition of death. Do we have fewer people in American pews than there used to be? Sure. But Christians are gathering in Africa, in southeast Asia, in South America, and they can’t keep up with the amount of churches needed to house the communities. A shift is not a death. Do we have a different cultural relationship with Christianity than we used to in the West? Sure. But Christianity is becoming something that is owned with purpose and determination rather than to impress your boss or make sure the neighbors don’t think you’re a terrible person. A shift is not a death. Do the new generations have a wariness about Christianity that often manifests in us leaving the faith? Sure. But many are hungering after authentic grace and we millennials, for one, are becoming some of the strongest change agents in the Church. A shift is not a death.
So look deeper when you see a church with plywood where the doors ought to be. It may well be that that church has closed—but perhaps that’s to form a co-op with another church down the street, or to move into the city to be closer to the people who need this news of unconditional love, or to switch to a more accessible and less leaky building to keep on worshipping. Or maybe it completely folded, and that’s okay too because the face of Christianity is changing and that church may have lived its purpose in that spot. Or maybe it didn’t, maybe it wasn’t done yet, and that boarded-up church represents a workplace where God is calling someone to bring the message of hope back into that neighborhood. Is it you?
Or, maybe, it’s just getting its doors replaced so it can come out looking beautiful once more, ready to fling those doors open come Easter and let the hymns roll out over the stone steps into the neighborhood proclaiming that Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed. Keep looking. There is life here, and life abundant.
We know that Christ has been raised from the dead and he will never die again. Death no longer has power over him. He died to sin once and for all with his death, but he lives for God with his life. In the same way, you also should consider yourselves dead to sin but alive for God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:9-10, CEB)