“Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life. Therefore, I will dwell in peace in the shelter of the Lord, in the house of Lord, forever and ever.” From Psalm 23
I just got home from vacation. I’m almost more tired than when I left. It was a beautiful, whirlwind filled with every emotion you can imagine. I was blessed to sing with some amazing people, friends old and new, in beautiful, historic, and holy places. My traveling companions were intent on making sure I had enough “sermon material” for at least a year. You’ll all be hearing about pieces of this trip for a long time. The beauty and the brokenness. That said, I hope you’ll bear with me in this article as I wrestle through some of my own questions and observations about church, faithfulness, the sacred and the forgotten.
To borrow a phrase, you can take a pastor out of her pulpit, but you can’t take the pulpit out of the pastor. While we were in England and Ireland, we visited and sang in some of the most famous churches and cathedrals in the UK. Giant cathedrals. Small famous churches tucked away in the “old parts” of cities. We walked the ancient ruins of monasteries. We lingered in holy spaces whose buildings and ruins had long since decayed, and fallen away. They are now, for most, historical landmarks. Places where crowds of people come to sight see.
Beautiful, ancient, sacred spaces, where people came to worship God long ago. Places where they married, where they mourned, where they baptized their children -all just tourist attractions now. Some of these grand cathedrals still have worship services and ministries, but few enter for worship. These cathedrals no longer have congregations that support them, so they have entrance fees and gift shops to support and sustain themselves and the good work they are still trying to do. Its bitter-sweet. Its fearsome. It offers glimmers of hope.
I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. I believe there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular world. There is one world and it belongs to the Creator, God. So, while part of me aches for these empty places of worship, I hold hope for these crowded tourist attractions. That as long as people are drawn to see, hear, experience anything in these spaces, God can move on their hearts and bring them into loving relationship. I’m also reminded – the Church is not made up of buildings, even the ones that stand the tests of time. The Church is made up of people who love Jesus, who serve God, and are obedient to the Holy Spirit. The ancient holy spaces that need to be protected are those within our own hearts and spirits. If we want more people to be a part of our church, if we want to grow God’s kingdom, if we want to see more people in worship, we have to start with ourselves. It is true of every church, that all worship spaces would be full if the members of the church, themselves, came to worship each week. It is true that every church would have all the financial, physical resources it needs if all its members tithed. But as I mentioned before, these beautiful, grand cathedrals and churches are virtually empty save for the tourists. No one claims these places as their “church home” (with the exception of St. Nicholas’s in Galway, Ireland, which is another story for another time).
As a pastor, I keep wondering, will the “Church” in America become nothing more than a tourist attraction? Can the argument be made that we already are? With declining worship attendance and membership across the board in all denominations, and members/visitors that opt to give to non-profits and local organizations over their churches (for good reasons or bad) is the “Church” in America already taking the role of a tourist attraction? Are lives being transformed? Is Jesus being glorified? Are people being blessed and cared for in Jesus’ name? Is there community in Christ that prioritizes the love and work of God over all else? Any given day, my honest answer will vary. I long for the “Church” and my heart aches for the individual communities of local churches. What does the faithful practice of worship and discipleship look like now? What should it look like? Should we close all of our big buildings and meet in small house churches? Do we stop offering Sunday School, bible studies, youth or children’s programs because people don’t come? Or do press more fervently and deeply into the gaps? How do we re-imagine church that creates sacred space for people who don’t trust “church”? What is your dream for the “Church”?
These are just some of the questions I’m wrestling through. I’d love to sit with you and hear your heart and thoughts about your discipleship and the “Church”. I value your stories of faith and your journeys of discipleship. We are the Church. We are the House of the Lord. So friends, what kind of “Church” will we be?
Peace and Grace, Pastor Michelle