During my recent vacation, my husband and I found ourselves with a few unexpected hours in Aberdeen, Scotland. While wandering around the city, we noticed a few church buildings (not really a surprise; we tend to notice church buildings everywhere we go). Like so many places around Europe, church buildings are in a clear state of transition—in the midst of the sharp decline in membership over the last half century. In Aberdeen, we noticed one church building that has been fully repurposed into a museum, another that is now a pub/party venue:
and another that has been developed into an office building,
I couldn’t help but wonder what my own church building will eventually be used for—event space? a residence? offices? another faith community? Or, will it stand abandoned and vacant, an empty shell of its former glory?
I’m mindful that the “church” is not really its building, that the faith community must see itself as the body of Christ, as the presence of Christ in the world, rather than wrapping its identity inside and around the physical walls and structure in which it has gathered. But, my recent vacation also reminded me of the “church” as a physical structure, a place with walls and a roof, a place of quiet and holiness.
Earlier in our trip, we visited the island of Iona and spent some time in the Iona Abbey. There is something both powerful and humbling in sitting in an old church building, a place with thick walls and a tall ceiling, with rows of seats and the artifacts of a worship life—an altar, Bibles, hymnals, worship books, etc.
We happened to visit Iona on a Sunday, which also just happens to be the only day of the week when there is no prayer service in the afternoon. I had to content myself with just being in the building. Still, it felt very much like a Sunday experience for me, a small moment of silent worship and praise.
Sure, it could have had my moment of Sunday worship and praise anywhere. But, I found that the building is not only a convenient and familiar place in which to which to lift up a bit of worship and praise. There is something about the building itself that evokes a sense of holiness, of wonder, of prayerfulness.
What happens when we at Old South can no longer sustain our building(s)? We may live on as church, in important and meaningful ways, but we will also miss something significant to our lives of faith, in the loss of the building in which we worship. And perhaps more than that.
At Old South, we already spend a couple of months each winter worshiping outside of the building, gathering for Sunday worship in our parish house. Over the years, we have learned that there are pros and cons to this transition. In moving to our other building, we lose the threat of slipping on an icy road (the parish house, across the street from the church building, is closer to the parking area). We also lose the organ and the pulpit, as well as the large setting in which the small congregation tends to spread from one side to the other. The parish house may feel less “church-like,” but there are benefits beyond accessibility: we have a closer experience and even when our worship attendance is low, we don’t feel small.
My experience in Scotland reminded me that the building is not simply for the community that gathers within it. Church buildings are for others as well. As church membership declines at a remarkably rapid pace and as church buildings are repurposed into spaces that are not connected to religious practice, will the community at large find that we have lost something precious and valuable?
Perhaps a wee bit of hopefulness can be found at Iona, where the first wave of Christianity gained a foothold in 563. Through great toil and struggle, Christianity has been a part of Iona on and off through these many hundreds of years. Among the Christians that have found a home on Iona were Celtic Christians, Benedictines and since the 1930s, an ecumenical group of Christians known as the Iona Community. The Abbey Church has experienced both a strong sense of place and connection, with active worship, as well as complete abandonment.
In all of this, what seems important is to remain tethered to our purpose and our lives of faith, to do our best to refrain from overwhelming worry and concern about the future, and quite simply, to trust, to trust in the work of the Spirit in our midst.