The Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Madison, Maine (about 40 miles north of Augusta) closed its doors at the end of last December. The building was then purchased and turned into event space. Last weekend, “Somerset Abbey” opened its doors for its first public event, a comedy show.
The venue itself provided fertile material for the comedians on the show. Although I was not there, the local paper provided coverage. The title of the piece on the front page of the Local section in The Morning Sentinel was called, “Laughing Their Praises.” One of the warm-up comedians quipped, “I think this is the first time there’s been this much excitement in church in a while.”
At some point, someone yelled out something that I might have yelled out if I had been there, “It’s not a church.” But, the comedian snapped back, “But it looks like a church. I don’t think anyone is driving by saying, ‘I think that’s a raised ranch.’”
This is a big problem for a lot of us who remain faithful and committed to a church community. It’s all too easy to equate “church” with “building”—for those outside the church community, as well as inside. For too many Christians, especially old mainliners in the United States, we think of our life of faith as inexorably linked to the building in which we worship. And, so the community at large thinks the same way.
As we’ve discovered in little Madison, Maine, it’s all too easy, then, to become the butt of the joke. If we have any hope for the future, this must change.
The early Christians made a mark for themselves, NOT by building large, imposing edifices in which to gather, but by being communities of love and care, by being communities that looked out for each other, and by feeding and caring for the poor and marginalized. The early Christians were distinctive by who they were, and how they were inspired, instead of where and how they gathered for worship.
Making the transition, though, from one way of thinking to another is very hard. At a church like Old South, where the average age of the worshipping community is somewhere around 70, many of those who worship are “builders.” The building is an essential piece to how they understand and express faith. The building is how they experience and connect with God.
So, we find ourselves in a precarious place—watch our worshiping community get smaller and smaller until we can’t pay the bills and then have to sell the building (for condo conversion, or “event space,” or for the making of hard apple cider) or we need to learn how to let of the very thing that holds such deep meaning for us.
This is another angle of what fuels my concern that we are doomed. When the building is so precious to us, we can’t possibly believe that our church will continue well into the future. It is clear as day that the wider community is not where we are, and even more than that, we have become at best a nostalgic token of something that is no longer.
It’s going to take real effort to make the kind of changes that are necessary. The problem is that it may be too late.