By: Mitch Bloomquist
I was just out of high school, when I traveled with my college choir to Europe for a tour of some of the world’s most impressive churches. I was anxious because it would be my first trip out of the country, I would be traveling with people I barely new, and I had one other problem. I’ll never forget the day when I told my choir director about it. I told her I would have to miss part of the tour and meet them there because I needed to go to prom with my high school girlfriend. You can imagine her face as she sternly informed me that I was wrong. I am so glad she did so. Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed going to prom; and besides, in the end I was still able to eventually marry the girl.
You know the phrase, it’s a nice place to visit, but I would never want to live there? I’m not talking about Europe (though I do love the United States) I am talking about the masterful works of architecture in Florence, Rome, Vienna and Salzburg where millions of tourists flock to see the impressive domes, decadent ornament and soaring towers of some of the worlds most historically significant places of worship. It’s hard to believe that many people call those places home. It’s where they worship every week. They don’t seem like they could ever feel like home to me, as they don’t look or feel like anything I am used to. I would eventually find out why that actually makes sense.
Why don’t we worship in monumental churches with little chapels for this and that, soaring domes, marble columns and sculptures and 20 ft-tall doors? One easy answer may be that we can’t afford it. But it’s actually more intentional than that.
Following the reformation, as protestant Christians came to the United States, there were no churches or state buildings. They had the opportunity to start from scratch and they were going in a different direction. They were going to do something new. Their plan was to move away from the transcendence of God and towards the imminence of God. Where High Church tradition was to draw hearts and minds to the glory of God, to the otherworldliness and beauty of God, they were having a love affair with Jesus. In their minds and in their hearts, Jesus was and is so present that you could hug him. There was a shift in focus from the power of God, the perfection and the beauty of God, to the ministry of Jesus, to us, in all of our lives. They emphasized the worthiness of God in our own worthiness.
This shift is visible in the physical church as well. The architecture of the church shifts from a sacred space, to a shelter for worship. From glorious, monumental structures built to the glory of God, to a gathering place, a simple house of worship.
Put simply, before, the church was designed to be a place for God, for the meeting between God and human. It was where God was present. But from the Protestants’ point of view, God is in us. Jesus is in us. God didn’t need a house; he already had one in us. The church was for us. The church was our gathering place to be with one another, to worship.
In today’s (3/13) reading Jesus tells us to let go of the past, to not dwell on it, to do a new thing, and I think we have an opportunity to reevaluate these two views of what a church ought to be and come up with our own as we embark on our renovation and expansion project.
Looking forward, following Hope’s 50th anniversary celebrations, Pastor Mary Beth passed out index cards during worship requesting that each person in attendance record their answer to one question, “What are your dreams for Hope United Church of Christ?”
Over 100 cards, each presenting one to three dreams, were collected that day. The responses revealed a remarkable consensus, bigger and better facilities and more for our youth. Nearly 78 percent of respondents dreamed of more space for our programs, worship and fellowship. Over 80 percent of respondents specifically dreamed of expanded resources for our youth.
There were other trends. Respondents’ cards were filled with dreams of technology, education, music, fellowship and growth. And there was one theme that stood out above all else. Respondents over and over again dreamed of a welcoming congregation, welcoming programing and a welcoming building.
Welcoming is a deep part of our tradition. Radical hospitality. Our extravagant welcome. We welcome others because Christ has welcomed us. While I am up here today to talk specifically about the prospects of building, I must argue, it is the task of the people to be welcoming. The other efforts of our church are the priority. We cannot ask a building to do what we fail to do.
Hope United Church of Christ has been discussing building renovation and expansion plans for nearly ten years. Given the growing need for additional space and the overwhelming consensus of the congregation, we, the Building and Renovation Task Force, or as Pastor Mary Beth calls us, BART, are exploring our needs and various paths towards our goal of becoming more welcoming.
In that spirit, I invite you to join me in a conversation around the following three questions.
- What does a welcoming building look like?
- What features of a building have the greatest potential to be welcoming?
- How could a more welcoming building enable us to do more for our community, our youth and each other?
A more welcoming building would look like a home. I don’t want to be impressed by the size of the edifice, I want to feel like I am coming home or perhaps going to a friend’s home. I’m not at all sure how that plays out, but that’s my feeling.
Welcoming features: Lots of light, something that looks comfortable. Pews don’t strike me as welcoming, it’s just what we have always done. Same for the alter and cross and the stained glass. They are designed to impress, not to welcome. And again, it’s what we have always done.
The third question is almost moot. If you can bring people in, things will happen.