Coffee shops buzz with conversation. Sometimes it is experienced as white noise. Other times it forces great concentration. Not to make out the different subjects that are being discussed but to focus on the subject of, say, a blog post.
There are few new Southern Baptist Church worship venues today that compare to the one I grew up attending. Reading the Religion section of recent Saturday edition of The Oklahoman reminded me of the beautiful pipe organ Mrs. Yetter played week in and week out. Ms. Blumhof and others tickled the ivory keys of the grand piano with something like magic.
The room seemed to reach to the sky, at least as I remember it as a young child. Tall, slender, stained-glass windows lined the north and south walls reaching upward. The woodwork provided the perfect accent. Even the padded hardwood pews seemed ideally suited for the room. Theater seats filled the austere balcony.
The space called for reverence. Expectations of quiet contributed to the designation, sanctuary. Space away from the noise. Francis Spufford describes our modern experience of life,
We live in a noisy place, inside and out, and the noise we hear pours into the noise we make. It’s hard to listen, even when misery nudges you into trying. (Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, p57)
Maybe we could agree that in every era people have always needed a place away from the noise. We may experience more noise than at any other time in human history. Some may find that hubris of a sort. But, clearly, in our Country, it would be hard to deny the decibel level can be deafening.
It would not have been hard to find a quiet space in that old sanctuary.
This is not a nostalgic piece. The aim is not to suggest the quiet of that old sanctuary was somehow more suited for today’s noisy living. Though, that may be the case when we consider that some prefer deafening music in their worship experience. One wonders what gets drowned out in the process.
Sign and Symbol
Spufford turns from his observation that our lives are noise upon noise and directs our attention to what happens when he enters the church he attends. He does not so much point out the preaching or the music. Instead, he focuses on what may be observed from the Message the building represents. He writes,
The calm in here is not denial. Its an ancient, imperturbable lack of surprise. To any conceivable act you might have committed, the building is set up only to say, ah, so you have, so you did; yes. Would you like to sit down? I sit down. I shut my eyes. (p.57)
A building? Really? Striking for someone who no one would dare describe as a fundamentalist, maybe not even a conservative. After all, many of us who hail from the Evangelical branch of the Christian tree in the United States were indoctrinated to be wary of a self-described British Anglican. For decades the Evangelical report on the lack of vibrancy of Christianity is evidenced by empty churches in Western Europe.
For others, it will seem more than strange to attribute to a building the sort of meaning Spufford gives his church building. Again, those of us in the U.S., of the Evangelical branch of the Christian tree, have been telling parishioners, church members and attenders, the Church is precisely NOT the building. What meaning could we possibly make of a building?
Maybe the sign, the symbol, named church building serves as an ongoing catalyst that calls those who enter its space to remember the Story for which it stands.
Battling the Caricature
Centuries of Church History offer illustrations to challenge the habits and practices of some who have entered, even led, in church buildings. Modern skepticism, even cynicism, toward churches, even the Church, finds plenty of fuel in episodes of moral failure. Sometimes those disasters expose a shoddy ethical scaffolding where observers muse, “No wonder!”
Church buildings as signs, symbols, of the Story for which it stands continues to indict what happens within its walls by adherents and outside its walls by followers. Any move that violates the Story for which it stands does not change the meaning of the Story itself. Rather the sign, the symbol, provides a means for the violation and violator to be shown contradictory to the Story for which it stands.
We who still walk the halls and sit in the sanctuaries of these buildings, signs, and symbols, know the caricatures that have arisen amidst the lapses and failures of Christian people. Maybe it would be better to force Christians to battle the caricature. We just might employ the buildings as signs, symbols, for the Story for which it stands to do so.
The Invitation Remains
The Story for which church buildings stand is still appropriately captured by Spufford. No matter the act, we who have been captured by the Story of Jesus know this ourselves, continue to find the invitation to come and sit down welcome. And, since we share with all people what Spufford terms, edited for this post, Human Propensity to Mess Things Up, there are plenty seats available.
To any conceivable act you might have committed, the building is set up only to say, ah, so you have, so you did; yes. Would you like to sit down?