Beginning in the late 19th century, the Methodists began settling down. What had been a movement of house groups, camp meetings, and simple preaching houses, set up shop on every Main Street and country crossroad and made themselves a presence with substantial stained-glassed buildings. In the 1950s and 1960s we built again during that anomalous period when Methodists grew and mainstreamed into American life along with the other mainline churches. So what to do with all these buildings?
I’m only a few poems into the new collection edited by Kevin J. Gardner titled Building Jerusalem: Elegies on Parish Churches [Bloomsbury, 2016], but it has already gotten under my skin. The unifying theme of the poems is a focus on abandoned or little-used Anglican churches. In an opening essay he quotes John Betjeman, the late British Poet Laureate: “Those driven by fiscal motives to shutter churches ‘ forget that church as a building is a more lasting witness to our Christian faith than any bishop, vicar, churchwarden or congregation.’” (4)
Now, I’m as likely to haunt old churches as anyone. An old church has a texture of well-worn devotion and memories of ecstatic transport. At Pocomoke Church, here on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, one of the old stiff pews has a small plaque to mark where Purnell Bailey, later a prominent United Methodist clergyman, received his call to ministry. Why people don’t sit there every Sunday in hopes of being zapped is a mystery to me.
But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith. They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.
“But much as I respect the power of place, even I know that buildings are not the lasting witness of faith. They can be boondoggles, precious curios when stripped of the people who invested them with life.”
No, don’t prop them up for poets’ sentimental longings. Repurpose them! Shutter them! Bulldoze them if it serves the kingdom! The Son of Man had no place to lay his head and our investment in buildings as an institution is a kind of nostalgia for the Davidic kingdom and a time when we were established and respected.
We are not curates for a culturally-relevant museum. We are agents for the subversive kingdom which always demands new wineskins and they are in short supply.
Churches that find their budgets steadily consumed by the cost of maintaining their physical plant might ask the question of how best to be housed as we move into God’s new future. In many churches, the upkeep of buildings falls to aging trustees who do heroic work but who are feeling more overwhelmed by the task of addressing years of deferred maintenance. And in the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.
“In the culture at large, the greatest barrier unchurched people have to overcome is often the image of the church as old, out-of-touch, inaccessible, and imposing, something that is embodied in many of our buildings.”
I’m a sentimental fool with a romantic sense of history. I love these old buildings. It’s why I’m reading Gardner’s collection. But I love Jesus, too, and I think he’s calling us to new digs.