A recent issue of Portland magazine (October 2012) features a cover story on new uses for old churches called “Divine Intervention.” The cover photo displays a lively bar/restaurant with lots of people. It’s warm and inviting. It used to be a church. In the Table of Contents, the story’s subtitle is “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple; shift into retail and see all the people.”
For those of us who still go to church: Ouch.
I read this story with a lot of mixed feelings. While I fully realize that some churches are simply not able to continue to exist in their buildings and it’s nice to see new uses for those spaces that avoids tearing them down, it’s still very sad to contemplate the transition from worship space to something that is much more mundane.
These new restaurants, art galleries and performance spaces share architectural details of traditional churches, but they are no longer churches—even though the article would like the reader to believe that they are at least similar. I’m reminded of how important it is that we view churches more as congregations than as buildings. As those spaces once dedicated to worship are transformed into something else, what has happened to the actual church—the congregation?
Here in Central Maine, and especially at Old South, we are very aware of the reality of the potential hardship of physical structures. At Old South, we have a small group of parishioners from a church that closed. The structure that housed the Gardiner Congregational Church closed several years ago and was donated to the Maine Conference United Church of Christ. It is still up for sale.
What was that “church”? Was it the structure or the people who worshiped and gathered there? I know it’s painful for a congregation to experience the closure of a church building, especially when the congregation can no longer afford to support the space financially. For active church members, many memories involve the building—weddings, funerals, baptisms, confirmations. And, then there is just that sense of tranquility that many church folk experience when sitting in a sanctuary. I still remember the peace that came when I sat in the sanctuary of the first church I served. The sanctuary was enormous. On days when I was feeling especially overwhelmed or disconnected or out of sorts, I would sit in that sanctuary and find a peace that I could find nowhere else. It was both of and out of this world.
But, even that sanctuary is no longer a sanctuary. The building was sold to a local university.
These changes are difficult for church folk. But, even as we watch buildings “transition” from church to something else, let us never forget that what truly matters are the people who gathered there—the people who prayed and worshiped, laughed and cried there, sung songs and observed silences, hugged and supported each other, welcomed the stranger, and always sought to love God with all of their heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves.