Saturday, June 13, 2009

The "Ex-Churches"

Wed. June 3, 2009

“Post-Christian Europe”. It’s a term that I’ve read and heard many times during the last several years, be it in books or articles or discussions in the classrooms and hallways of seminary. It’s a concept that I feel like I have understood fairly well – in short that many European nations and communities, once bastions of faith in Christ, are basically now “over” Christianity. In Europe, a tipping point has been reached at which the frustration and incongruence of things like so-called faith without action, punch-clock religion, nominal/cultural Christianity, and compulsory state church taxes clearly outweighed the benefits in the eyes of the majority. And not only that, but they have finally reached a point where they will admit as much, sometimes by word (“I’m an atheist”) and even more often by deed (simply never setting foot in a church building). The individuals involved may in fact still reserve a special place in their lives for “spirituality” or even for Jesus, but just about all of them have decided that the Church has no place in their lives. The Body of Christ has largely become a non-factor in much of the Western World, or at the very least its influence has been drastically diminished. Certainly it’s a deeper and more complex issue that I will do justice to here, but to say the least it has been an interesting topic of discussion, and – get this – I have even prayed about it! Many times, actually. You see, I have very close friends who face down this monster known as “Post-Christian Europe” on a daily basis as they work as campus ministers in Spain, England, and Germany, and I can tell from their stories that it’s no joke. They are up against quite an obstacle when trying to convey the truth, love, importance, relevance, and reality of Christ to a group of intelligent young people who’ve basically grown up immersed in post-Christian cultures and see no reason for Jesus nor his Church to take on a significant role in their lives.

But, although this is a monumental challenge, and I think of my friends as heroes for persevering and making a difference every day, to be quite honest, the issue never really hit home with me until these last two days. For me, it took seeing a simple, poignant image for me to really understand the magnitude of what we are talking about when we opine about “Post-Christian Europe”. Or rather, it took me seeing three versions of the same image: a traditional church building vacated by the community of faith and now being used for other purposes.

Erin and I have been traveling in Scotland now for two days – yes, one great perk of the job of a CMF missionary is that we often have great opportunities to experience places we may otherwise never get to visit. We’ve been doing the tourism thing – seeing the castles and battlefields and cathedrals, etc. Now usually when we visit a new place and go see the cathedral, I must admit that I’m disappointed. Though beautiful and ornate, many of these grand old churches mostly bum me out because it is abundantly clear that not much ministry is going on in that place. God’s house has been reduced to a tourist attraction, an architectural and historical conversation piece. There are exceptions, and they thrill me – current, relevant ministry going on in a grand old cathedral is a very moving marriage of the old and new that make the Christian faith so timeless – but they tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. But let me tell you this: The bummed-out feeling that I get when I visit churches who aren’t doing much is nothing compared to the feeling I go when I recently ran across three church buildings that were not even housing churches anymore!

Three times during the past two days here in Scotland, I have seen beautiful old church buildings converted for other uses. I’m going to refer to them as “ex-churches” for lack of a better term. Let me tell you about them.

The first was an enormous gothic building, right on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Constructed between 1842 and 1845, this prominent church building was originally built to house both a parish church and the offices of the Church of Scotland, but in 1979 (the year of my birth), the congregation of the Highland Tollbooth St. John’s Church shut the doors and merged with another congregation. The building now houses “The Hub”, which is multi-purpose facility whose primary functions are ticket office, cultural center, concert hall, and café. Nowadays, if you want to know anything about the Edinburgh International Festival, or any of the other Edinburgh festivals or other such cultural events, the Hub is the place to inquire. You can also have a snack or coffee with friends, or catch a concert. All good stuff. But Jesus is conspicuously absent.

The second ex-church that I saw was somewhere – I don’t recall exactly where – on the A-85 during our drive from St. Andrews over to Oban. As we drove through yet another lovely little Scottish town, off to the side I saw yet another lovely little church building … except it had a huge sign hung on the side of it that said “Antiques”. A place to go and get treasures from the past, very old things whose usefulness and beauty has actually been enhanced as they have aged. Perhaps you could even find an old Bible or an old pulpit – but you’d have to purchase them and take them out of that particular building in order to put them to use. It’s an antique store now.

My third encounter with an ex-church was in the small coastal city of Oban. After getting a room at a local hostel, Erin and I headed for the center of town to figure out our plans for the next morning’s tour of the isles of Mull and Iona. En route to book passage to one of the most important places in Christian history (Iona), we walked past a little church building … that has been converted into the local tourist information office. There was the “i” symbol, sought by tourists in need of information and guidance in an unfamiliar place. Nowhere to be found, however, was the symbol of the cross.

At each of these encounters with ex-churches, and as I’ve reflected on them since, I have experienced mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad these buildings are in use! And being used for mostly good things. But the dominant feeling I have had is one of deep sadness. These places made me sadder than the other cathedrals that frustrate me with their seeming lack of relevance because at least those places still house churches of some kind. At least there is worship and ministry going on there, no matter how feeble I judge it or how little I see of it. But the ex-churches, these places make me much sadder, because these guys have given up. The Christian communities who once called these buildings their homes are beaten. At some point, they threw in the towel, sold the building, and moved on, and the group that came in to take their place was not another upstart church community happy to have the space, but instead a secular organization with different plans and purposes entirely. Whatever Xians were there before are now out on the street, maybe meeting in another place, maybe not. It just makes me sad.

Maybe it’s a good thing. Rather than limping along, mostly ineffective and pitiful, these churches have hit rock bottom. From there the only way to go is up – or away. Maybe the post-Christian thing in Europe will just become fertile soil for a real spiritual revolution. We all know that the Church is at its strongest, its purest, when it is underground and persecuted. Maybe we are approaching a time in Europe more reminiscent of first century Palestine – tight, small communities totally committed to the Gospel – than Constantine’s empire, where politics and earthly power diluted the Message. That would be nice.

And here’s the thing – I have nothing against “The Hub” or the antique store or the tourist information office. I’m a big fan of cultural festivals, antique furniture and nick-nacks, and maps and pamphlets and people who help me to find my way around when I’m a stranger and a newcomer. These are all good things, but it makes me sad to see them in place of the Best Thing – local incarnations of the Body of Christ in this world.

Tomorrow I will travel to Iona, St. Columba’s point of departure for launching Christianity first to Mull, then to Scotland, then to all of Britain and all of Europe. I will reflect on this topic, among others. I will think about the ex-churches. I will think about the monks martyred there by Vikings. I will walk around the abbey and feel the history of our faith. And I will definitely offer up a prayer for “Post-Christian Europe” and for the many incarnations of the Body of Christ on that continent.

I pray for local church communities new and old – some maybe not returning to meet in those same buildings, or maybe so – to return to being all that God desires for them to be. May they be hubs in their towns, the most relevant and useful of community centers, not only informing the people of the cultural goings-on but also helping them to interpret them in light of the truth of Jesus. May they deal in antiques in the most beautiful of ways, taking what is old, mining its beauty, and teaching its relevance in the here and now. And may they be sources not just of city maps but help in mapping out our lives, not just of useful information but also of life-giving, eternal wisdom. May they be places for all of us, who are just passing through anyway, to find what we need to help get us to where our loving Father ultimately desires for us to go – eternity spent with Him.

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