Saturday, August 14, 2010

More Than Bricks and Mortar

It was a church – built for the glory and worship of God. The pews had all been ripped up and replaced by shelves and shelves of second hand books. The pulpit housed a chair for the shop manager to sit in and survey all of his books. The gallery, accessed by a spiral staircase, which probably wasn’t a part of the original fixtures, contained the tables and chairs, and soft sofas of a café.

We were in there this morning. Joe was on the hunt for a book and we had trailed around all of the bookshops earlier on in the week. The second hand bookshop was the last hope – except it really wasn’t any hope at all. The book may well have been there, but finding it was not an easy task. Some attempt was made to categorise the books, but as for displaying them in alphabetical order – it just didn’t happen. As well as the books on shelves there were piles of books on the floor. For someone with a vague tendency to tidy things, I had to resist the urge to start sorting just one shelf into alphabetical order!

There was a wonderful aroma coming from the café – the soup was being made. It was a glorious fragrance and pulled me back there three hours later for lunch. Yellow split peas with turnips and carrots – it was a taste sensation, one of the nicest soups I have tasted in a while.

While slurping soup, and dribbling it down my front from a lack of concentration, I looked down from my gallery table and chairs down the bookshop below. I pictured the place without the shelves and books and the café. It wasn’t so hard. A Sunday morning perhaps, with pews filled with folk in their Sunday best. I saw the wives, rosy cheeks, hats thrust on heads, spitting onto fingers and combing through their children’s hair that wouldn’t stay flat. The first chord of the organ wheezed out and with a scuffle and scrape of shoes, every stood up and the minister climbs the steps up to the pulpit. He preached a rousing fire and brimstone sermon and snatched burning brands away from hell’s fire.

Why do congregations sell off their churches? In my mind’s eye my church was filled to the brim with people. I even thought of revival scenarios where there was an extra meeting or two, or midweek meetings preaching a gospel message. Perhaps the more real picture is a couple of dozen folk rattling around the pews. Maybe that is why they sold the church…because they couldn’t fill the pews.

It offends me to see a church up for sale, or converted into a picture gallery, a pub, an antiques shop or a bookshop. It speaks a message that church is no longer relevant today…that no one needs God anymore.

“Yes, but, what if it is not that at all?” says a still small voice, “How much money do churches spend on the fabric of a building like this one? It may have a history but it also has dry rot, an ancient heating system, dislodged tiles on the roof and crumbling gables. It’s like throwing money into a black hole. So they sell the old building – to a bookshop – and with the money they build a new church, perhaps in a housing estate nearer to where people live.”

It’s not always the case of the church becoming a pub. For many years the function rrom in a pub in the city centre became home to our church. A fish factory in the industrial estate was sold to another church and transformed into a meeting hall and coffee place.

Church should never be about the building, and I have seen my share fair of church buildings.

Church is about the people that God has chosen, changed, equipped and sent out into the world. What kind of building we meet in is irrelevant. What happens when we meet is all important.

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