Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Churches of Beauty and Permanence

Building with beauty and permanence in mind.

This is the topic of our talk together today. The more that I travel, the more I realize that it is beauty and permanence that ultimately win in the fight of the ravages of time and cultural shift. I am speaking today, not on a spirtual topic, but on a practical topic with spiritual implications.

Let's ask ourselves this question: If Solomon's Temple still existed today, would you like to go and see it even though you are not a practicing Jew? Would you like to understand some of the history, religion, and people behind its magnificent beauty? If you could, would you tear down Solomon's temple in order to replace it with something more ulilitarian and functional?

Okay, with the obvious answers to those questions in our minds, let us turn our attention to how we build today. (I speak as someone whose primary interest is church buildings, but the concept does apply in other areas of construction.)

When building church buildings the focus always seems to be time (how soon can we get it done), cost (how cheaply can we get it built), and functionality (will it suit our purpose and programs). If those three elements can be satisfied, we believe that we have a church building of which we can be proud. And, given the right heart attitude and motivations there is a measure of truth to that thinking.

The question really is: Should our buildings say something about who our God is? Should they be beautiful; not because we want to show off, but because He is beautiful? Should they give the impression of permanence; not because we want to build with the best of materials, but because He is eternal?

Some of these thoughts have been rolling around in my head because of the travel that I have done in the past years. Whether it is the Myan pyramids of Mexico or the great cathedrals of Europe, an air of beauty and permanence surrounds them giving them a majesty that is absent from the utilitarian buildings of our day. Even the humble, one room stone church of the Scottish hills and the colonial timber framed church held together with wooden pegs, mortise, and tenon have these qualities.

It is not that we cannot build with beauty and permanence today. We can...but usually we don't.

It is partially because we are in a hurry. God is not. It is partially because we are cheap. God is not. It is partially because, in our utilitarian day we do not care about beauty. God does. It is partially because we do not think in terms of centuries. At best we think about a building in which our kids and grandkids can worship. God's heart and mind spans eternity.

There is no Bible verse applicable to New Testament church buildings that I can point to in order to backstop these arguments, of this I am aware. However, I ask this question. If there comes a time when there is no longer a functioning congregation in your town, does your building and property have such qualities of beauty and permanence that the townspeople would insist on some dignified role for it that would honor the history of a worshipping people, or would it be sold to the highest bidder and turned into whatever commercial enterprise that buyer deems fit?

Now, I realize that because of the shifting values of culture and other factors even buildings of beauty and permanence are sometimes bulldozed in the name of progress. This is a shame, and thankfully it is relatively rare.

So then, what can we do to improve the beauty and permanence of existing church facilities today? Here are some rough thoughts that you no doubt can expand and improve upon.

1. Begin to invest in, collect, display, and permanently integrate into the building art that tells God's story and depicts His beautiful creation. Artists are an untapped potential in our churches today.

2. Graveyards: If your church has the property, get the appropriate permits and establish a beautiful cemetery.

3. Monuments: Find something that you can put on granite that will  be preserved even if one day your building is bulldozed. Preferrably something that ties God, the church, history, and the community into one memorable story.

4. When you renovate, take the time to do it well and beautifully. There is no hurry. Some of the cathedrals took over five hundred years to build. You can wait another five months to raise the money to do it right.

5. Keep some stuff. If you don't care about your church's history you cannot  expect your children or your community to care about it's historic place in their town. Although we are loathe to give up space in our buildings we must change our minds to realize that rooms dedicated to telling the story of God's working in our congregation over the years are not wasted rooms. It is stories that change and shape culture. If your church's story is told well in these mini museums it will inspire those who come behind you.

6. Well marked and publicized time capsules: Towns love these things and will honor this tradition.

7. Statues: Although the evangelical churches are not historically fans of statues, there could be a good argument made for the statue of a historical christian figure that either lived in, did siginificant work in, or was born in your town.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lessons from the Church Bells

Time. It is one of those intangible things of incalculable value that makes up our lives. I was reminded of this again on a recent trip to Europe. There, in the heart of France I came across a town that had no stores whose signs also read the time and temperature as we see many do in North America. Instead, I was struck with the sound of the church bells that sounded the time every fifteen minutes throughout the day and night.

There is a certain beauty to the sound wave of a church bell rolling out from the bell tower of a church, down the hill and across the valley. But it was more than the haunting beauty of the tolling bells that struck me. It was the avalanche of thoughts associated to the ringing of the bells that turned my attention to writing today. My thoughts were as follows:

1. These bells have been tolling every fifteen minutes for hundreds of years. - This should teach me persistence.

2. Although at this point I am reasonably sure that the bells are controlled electronically, but there was a day when someone had to be up in the middle of the night and be alert enough to ring the bells at the appropriate time and in the prescribed sequence. - This should teach me to be alert.

3. The bells reach the ears of thousands of people across the whole town. Whether they pay attention to what the bells are trying to tell them (the time) is up to the individual. The bells and those who ring them do not get to say, 'Let's not ring the bells because most of the people are ignoring them'. - This should teach me that it is the proclamation of the message that is important. If people want to lisen, that's up to them.

4. The bells are a beautiful but stark reminder of the passing of time. - This should teach me that time stops for no man and that I should heed the Bible's instruction to make full use of the time given to me.

5. The bells ring whether I want them to or not. (Believe me, when you can't sleep at three a.m. you don't want the bells ringing every fifteen minutes.) - This should teach me that I am not in control of the passage of time neither can I control those things in my life that point out to me that time is moving on -- like my slowly greying hair or the realization that those children I once taught in Sunday School are grown with children of their own. Most days I would like to control time. I would like to slow down the bells, but that isn't an option. I am not in control.

6. The sound of the bells flow down from the belfry of the church on the hill. - Although we know that the church building is not Heaven, the sound of the bells should remind me that the God, the Heaven, and the eternity that those bells represent are not simply to be some part of my life. Instead: God, Heaven, and eternal values are to become so entwined with my existence that even fifteen minutes cannot pass by without their importance crossing my consciousness.

Monday, October 12, 2015

A Lesson from a Catholic Reggae Concert

While walking with my wife on vacation in Lyon, France, I came across a large square with a beautiful stone cathedral at one end and a concert stage set up at the other end. Being of the curious sort I took a picture of the cathedral  and then walked over to see what was up with the stage. Upon approaching the stage I was met by a very kind young man who, in rather good English, told me that the concert setup was for 'World Youth Day'. This of course, is a day that has been set aside by the Vatican to promote the Catholic religion among young people both inside and outside of that religion. The young man seemed very excited about this special day and said that they were celebrating mass and then were going to have a Catholic Reggae concert.

Ok, so because my vacation apartment was a block away from the concert and I was sure that sleep would not be gotten during the performance, I went by that same square while I was on my way with my wife to get her nightly dose of gelato. (some kind of fancy ice cream that I don't understand but she seems to enjoy) What I saw made me think. There were four or five guys up there on stage singing their hearts out trying to build up the excitement of a full blown pop concert atmosphere in that square. And there were, I admit, some two hundred or so enthusiastic teens around the stage totally into what was going on. Besides these die hard fans there were maybe another two hundred or so that were hanging out, watching at a distance like they were too cool for what was going on onstage.

As I stood there and took in the dichotomy of a Cathedral that dates back to 1180 attempting to win the youth back with reggae music I was struck with several thoughts:

1. The young people of today must learn to honor history and beauty. Although I am not a Roman Catholic, I am an admirer of beauty in architecture and construction. The cathedral in that square is breathtaking and took five hundred years to complete it's construction.

2. The numbers didn't add up. In the city of Lyon (population 1.44 million in 2014) there are Catholic churches everywhere you turn. Most of the city claims Roman Catholicism as their religion (83-88% nationally in 2014). So, my question is, where were all of the Catholic teens for this event? Given the statistics there should have been  at least several thousand there that night if this was an effective tool to engage Catholic  youth and interest the unbelieving youth in the Catholic religion. The only thing I can conclude is that with the shopping, bars, clubs, and other night life happening that Catholic reggae wasn't high on their priority list that night.


3. No matter what one's views are on the addition of the word 'Christian' to every genre of music imaginable to endeavour to make that genre a tool for evangelism my question is this: If the Roman Catholic church cannot make a resounding success of attendance at a concert in a town that they have completely dominated for nearly a millennium on a day as big as World Youth Day, why does the evangelical church think that they will fare any better trying to 'sell' a much less mainstream Christianity to a much less informed and indoctrinated audience by these same means? If the numbers don't work for the Roman Catholics, it is certain that they are not favorable to us in our outreach endeavours.

In conclusion, I realize that there are rock, pop, hip-hop, and yes, even reggae concerts held every day across the globe in the name of a Christianity of one stripe or another. Yes, many thousands attend these concerts - especially the highly publicized ones with high profile acts, backed by their labels, and playing in cities that are fan strongholds. Having said that, in areas where the culture is moving more quickly from post-modern to pre-pagan where church is seen as a stale artifact of the past this approach seems to be no longer working. Given this scenario, thought must be given to more effective methods of reaching out to those for whom music with the word 'Christian' attached has no value or attraction.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Forget the Bus, Let Me Walk - When Policy and Procedure Should Bow to Practicality

Everyone knows that the world works better with rules. Things like stop signs and speed limits save lives. Unfortunately, often the same rules that were intended to save lives end up being an inconvenience and a waste of time and resources. The following is my experience in this department.

Last week my wife and I went away on a vacation. We landed in Germany and awaited a connecting flight to Lyon, France. It was a five hour layover, and after travelling for nearly thirty hours my patience was nearly at the breaking point. Finally, it was time to board. Once we had passed through the boarding gate, walked to the plane, and settled into our seats I thought, 'Okay. This is good. I can get a short nap on this flight.' This however, was not to be. Oh, it isn't because I didn't try to sleep. I did, but our illustrious captain had other plans. In his walk around the plane in preparation for takeoff had discovered, much to his credit, a hydraulic leak. He first tried to ascertain whether the leak was large enough to affect the operation of the aircraft. And so, for the next half hour we heard the squeal of hydraulics as they tested that part of the aircraft. This did little to improve my sleep or my mood. In doing so, they determined that that part must be repaired. After an hour of 'repair work' the cabin crew informed the passengers (me, now having been in transit for thirty-two hours and inwardly grumpy for the last eight of them) that we would have to disembark that plane and board a new plane that they would swing into the 'parking spot' only thirty yards away.

Now, here is the rub. We couldn't just walk from the broken plane to the one that was supposed to get us to our destination. 'Safety regulations' required us to get off the plane, board busses, take a leisurely tour up and around the tarmac and finally swing around at the open doors of the new aircraft. All in all, a supreme waste of manpower, money, time, and assets. Could everyone have gotten off the plane, walked the thirty yards to the waiting plane and gotten on board without incident? Sure they could have. Was the tarmac bus tour just as likely to have had a safety incident as the short walk from one plane to the next? Of course.

Here's the moral of our story. Regulations are good, but sometimes they do not serve the good of those involved and never should they be equally applied to all situations. Those in the church who believe that the 'rules' they have made up are a one-size-fits-all solution are simply wrong. The Word of God does fit all. It is universal truth. However, all of those little rules, regulations, and policies that churches (meaning well) pile on top of the Word of God cannot be seen as absolute and universal. If these rules of policy and procedure are elevated to the level of inalterable law you will at times have much waste of manpower, money, time, and assets. On top of that you will have unhappy church members that are forced to go to unnecessary lengths to satisfy policy rather than accomplish what is practical.  So when a short walk will do, don't make people take a long bus ride just because it is in the 'policy handbook'.