In Colonial New England, the first public building erected in a settled town was usually something called a “meetinghouse.” This building was used for gatherings, especially gatherings of the faithful for regular worship. The concept of meetinghouse was intended to convey that the “church” was not the building, but the people who gathered there.
It’s a shame that the word “meetinghouse” is no longer widely used—or practiced. For aging and shrinking congregations, buildings are a problem. They cost a great deal in maintenance and utilities. Yet, it can be difficult to cut the ties between congregation and building. Sure, it’s emotional to consider putting a church building up for sale. And the whole situation is harder still when the church and the building in which it gathers become entwined, as if they are the same thing. The complications continue when the church building is more beloved among those who do not regularly gather with the assembled faithful. Somehow, there are people who feel a deep connection to the building itself, as if the very existence of the building as a “church” is all that they need to think of themselves as part of that “church,” even if they rarely, if ever, attend a worship service.
At the church that I serve—Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ—in Hallowell, Maine, we are poised to begin serious conversations about our buildings. Yes, that’s plural. We have two—a sanctuary building (where, not surprisingly, the sanctuary is located) and a parish house (where offices, classrooms, a kitchen and a fellowship hall are located). With an average weekly worship attendance in the thirties, even one building is a bit of a burden. Two is simply unsustainable, tipping the balance of church finances away from ministry and mission.
The governing body has been dipping its toes into this thorny, sensitive subject over the course of the last few years. One of the issues that hampers the conversation is that the building with the lion share of emotional attachment—the sanctuary building—is clearly the more problematic one. The building with its large, imposing organ, is lovely. But, it has no office space and it doesn’t even have a phone line, much less internet access. And, perhaps the biggest problem is that the building is nestled neatly into a steep hill, with very little parking. In bad weather, getting into the building can be hazardous.
If we are to shed a building, it should be the sanctuary building. Understandably, that’s a hard thing to contemplate, and still harder to act upon.
Interestingly, many of those who have remained actively connected to Old South through the pandemic—attending worship and meetings online—are starting to acknowledge that their ties to the sanctuary building are not as strong as they once were. Even those who spoke up before the pandemic about the spiritual significance of the sanctuary building, are now beginning to reflect on the fact that a year and a half without the building has brought a remarkable discovery: the ties to the sanctuary are not that strong. Instead, it’s the congregation that matters. It’s the people who have helped them to maintain connection and to grow spiritually. While the buildings are convenient, they hold much less spiritual significance. For these folks, there’s a new awareness of the old New England concept of “meetinghouse.”
Not everyone, though, has been with us through this journey. Not all of Old South’s members have attended online worship and gatherings. I haven’t surveyed each and every one, but I am well aware of at least a few people who have been very vocal about the fact that, for them, there is no worship without the sanctuary building. It is in the sanctuary where they experience God.
The path ahead will be difficult, to say the least. Will those who have become, through experience, more inclined to the meetinghouse model remain so? How will we navigate the differences of perception and experience between those who gain greater awareness of God’s presence through the gathering of the faithful or through bricks and mortar (or, in the case of Old South, granite and mortar)?
Through our discussions, contemplations, reflections and arguments, will we continue to “meet” God, with a deep appreciation for the ties that really matter? Will we be able to extend our journey into the future, open to what the Spirit has in store for us, including the possibility that we are called to be something that we cannot, at this point, even imagine? Or, will we get so weighed down by the building(s) that the ties that connect us to the Divine, and to each other, will unravel and break apart?
These are all deeply important questions that must be considered and prayed over, over and over again, as we move into what’s next for Old South, as we learn in new ways what it means for us to be church.