Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The part that remains

For at least a dozen years, I have been telling a story that I remember from thirty years ago. I remembered it from before I ever called myself a Christian; before I came to belief in God; before I could even pretend to have faith.

I don't remember the details any more, and I've been asking questions of folks involved, and no one seems to remember them either. All I can tell you is that sometime in the late 1970's, two churches on Glendale Avenue in Toledo were torched on the same night, just about a week before Christmas. My memory is foggy, but I thought one congregation was east of Byrne Rd., and one was near Green Valley. One congregation's fellowship hall burned down; one church was a complete loss. Thousands of dollars of Christmas presents for needy kids were lost in the two conflagrations.

The memorable part, for me, was a TV news broadcast that occurred the day after the fire. One of the pastors was being interviewed by a TV news reporter about the effects of the fire, as they were standing in front of the wreckage of the church. The reporter asked, "How does it feel to know that your church has been destroyed, less than a week before Christmas?"

Unbelievably, the pastor smiled, and replied, "Oh, no - it's not as bad as that."

With a stunned look, the reporter glanced over his right shoulder at the still-smoking remains of the sanctuary, and then back to the pastor. The pastor, however, kept on smiling and said, "No, you don't understand...they destroyed the building, not the church. The church is what remains after your sanctuary has burned to the ground. "

I can't tell you why or how that idea stuck with me, but it has, for three decades.

The reason that story comes to mind is that probably dozens of Christian bloggers I know have published items in the last several months talking about searching for church communities and what "communities of faith" might/could look like. There are lots of people who are searching for what Michael W. Smith would call "their place in this world," and right now, I'm one of them, again/still.

I know that one thing that I believe true "faith communities" don't do is what my friend Natalie would call "worshiping the barn instead of the Savior." There are some congregations of which I've been a member who were more concerned with getting coffee stains on the narthex or sanctuary carpet than with welcoming strangers into the presence of faithful friends. In fact, those experiences have led me to believe that the more reverence a congregation puts on its building, the less impressed I am with 'em.

Which brings me back to the fire.

What I remembered, too, is that I've been a witness to several congregations whose buildings have been destroyed since that weekend. Living in Kansas, there are lots of stories of tornado damage - including one year-old building that was picked up whole by a tornado, and dropped exactly one foot off of its footings. The amazing part in all these stories was that "the part that remains" became only more enthused, more servant-oriented, and more engaged in the community. They took care of each other, but they took care of the community, too. I know that doesn't always happen; sometimes "the barn" is the last thing holding a shaky community together, and when the building goes, so does the church.

I do remember being a part of a church back in the mid-90's that had a problem. They had a long-standing dream of building a pipe-organ for their sanctuary - the choir loft had been designed especially for it when it was built years before, in fact. And the education wing needed upgrades, and an elevator. And they'd raised most of the money for the organ, and the worst-needed upgrades.

But then voices were raised that the pipe organ was an extravagance, and we'd be "worshiping the damn organ, eventually." There were lots of good arguments, pro and con - but it split the congregation, split the women's circles, you name it. Longtime friends were not speaking to each other over this thing - it was pretty bad.

One of the pro-organ people cornered me after worship one day, and asked me what I thought they should do. I hadn't learned a lot of tact and diplomacy at that point, and I didn't want to get involved, to be honest. But the poor soul kept pestering me, and so finally, I blurted out, "You wanna know what I think you should do? You wanna know what I think would solve all these problems?"

"Yes, of course I do! Tell me!"

"I think you should burn the damn sanctuary down."


"YOU heard me! You people are so damned spoiled, you have no idea what a real problem IS! You've got most of a half-million dollars raised for your building - and you can't agree on how to spend it. Aww, poor babies! What a damn tragedy that is! You're so blinded by your riches, you can't SEE your blessings, and you're setting brother against brother and friend against friend over this thing. So just burn down the damn sanctuary - and then you'll know what real problems are!"

Needless to say, no one ever bothered me about the topic again.

So when I'm visiting your church, don't bother telling me about your beautiful building, or your wonderful sound system. Tell me about your prayer team; tell me about your community outreach. Tell me about how you are serving "the least of these" in according with Matthew 25. Tell me how you are building the kingdom of God, one soul at a time. That's the stuff I want to hear about.

But if you start talking about your beautiful barn/mauseleum, I might just suggest that you burn it down.


wilsonian said...

I knew you were a man after my own heart.

Michael said...

This reminds me of the story of a small congregation of Catholic teaching sisters in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Part of the group were well-educated German-born sisters who had come over with lots of nice things; the other part was made up of poor, rural American-born (though mostly with German backgrounds) sisters. The two groups fought constantly and one battle was over the Motherhouse -- their main monastery -- and the nice things the German sisters valued so highly. One night the Motherhouse burned to the ground. When the Mother Superior (one of the German-born sisters)-- who was away on business -- was told, she said, "Good. Now we can build something together." By which she meant community and service. The sisters got over the fire and themselves and became the fine group of women they all had wanted to be anyway. They habitually tell their history in terms of "Before the Fire" and "After the Fire."

I lived for a few years in a monastery in Boston where it seemed that the building -- a beautiful old mansion -- mattered more than the people in it. The province was always wondering what to do about "the problem" of that community. I began to joke that we should burn the building to the ground and sow the land with salt. Then I stopped joking, afraid that if it did burn, I might be suspect. Eventually the building had to be sold (amid much drama and agonizing) and the community moved to another, simpler and more suitable place. Almost immediately the community dynamic changed and life began to move in a healthier and more Christian direction.

John of the Cross would point out that the problem was not the building as such, but what we make of the building. Your term "worship' describes the idolatry pretty well.

TK said...

That story hits way too close to home Steve. Thanks for sharing it. If I promise to give you credit can I borrow your line?


Steve F. said...

As the old line says, "It's not important who said it first, but who said it last and who said it best."

But I love getting credit for wise things, so credit away...

Poor Mad Peter said...

Hey Steve man, we're definitely birds of a feather. The line I use is "Abandon the buildings!"

I've sent a "modest proposal" letter to three congregations who are small, struggling, yet worth keeping alive, suggesting that they start talking about merging. I didn't say it in the letter, but all three struggle with their buildings, and would have to abandon them for any joining to work.

We'll see how things go...

By the way you'll be interested to know that "iconoclast" comes from the Greek phrase that can be translated as "idol smasher"; buildings as idols? You bet!

Cobb said...


Your comments about burning down the sanctuary hit close to home. Maumee United Methodist had their sanctuary burn down and it created a strong, vibrant, God centered congregation. Drop by and take a look. The second service is simply a gift.