When The Church Ceases To Be A Church

“The doors of the empty houses swung open and drifted back and forth in the wind.  Bands of little boys came out from the towns to break the windows and to pick over the debris, looking for treasures. . . . When the folks first left, and the evening of the first day came, the hunting cats slouched in from the fields and mewed on the porch.  And when no one came out, the cats crept through the open doors and walked mewing through the empty rooms. . . . When the night came, the bats, which had stopped at the doors for fear of light, swooped into the houses and sailed about through the empty rooms, and in a little while they stayed in dark room corners during the day, folded their wings high, and hung head-down among the rafters, and the smell of their droppings was in the empty houses.           

And the mice moved in and stored weed seeds in corners, in boxes, in the backs of drawers in the kitchens.  And weasels came in to hunt the mice, and the brown owls flew shrieking in and out again.            Now their came a little shower. The weeds sprang up in front of the doorstep, where they had not been allowed, and the grass grew up through the porch board.  The houses were vacant, and a vacant house falls quickly apart.  Splits started up the sheathing from the rusted nails.  A dust settled on the floors, and only mouse and weasel and cat tracks disturbed it.

On a night the wind loosened a shingle and flipped it to the ground. The next wind pried into the hole where the shingle had been, lifted off three, and the next, a dozen.  The midday sun burned through the hole and threw a glaring spot on the floor.  The wild cats crept in from the fields at night, but they did not mew at the doorstep any more.  They moved like shadows of a cloud across the moon, into the rooms to hunt the mice.  And on windy nights the doors banged, and the ragged curtains fluttered in the broken windows.”[1]

John Steinbeck in his Nobel Prize winning book entitled, The Grapes of Wrath, wrote the above description of what a house is like once it is abandoned.  The book written in fiction language describes how one “Okie” family, the Joads, were forced from their bank-foreclosed land to leave their belongings and head West in hopes of a better future.  The capturing imagery written by Steinbeck portrays not only what desolate families encountered during the Great Depression, but what I consider churches are facing today.   In my experience, when the church ceases to be a church, this is what happens.  We quietly begin to keep house.  Each member is assigned a task; one sweeps and vacuums the building, one takes care of preparing the communion, one is in charge of fixing the building.  Slowly each member is assigned a role in order to make sure the building is taken care of.  Furthermore, worship becomes not something we desire to do, but something that is done out of habit.  Sunday after Sunday the same hymns are sung, the same prayers are spoken and the same message is preached.  The members become like robots going through the motions they have participated in for so many years.  The song leaders don’t even have to tell them when to stand because people are already standing. Unfortunately the members grow old and their tired bodies are not able to continue the upkeep of the building.  Paint begins to fade and chip away, weeds begin to grow through the cracks of the sidewalk, spiders creatively form their webs in the dark corners, the windows are nailed shut with plexi-glass nailed to the outside in order to keep the children from throwing rocks.   

God forbid that this may happen but it already has.  Just look at the literature that is beginning to appear; books on how to close a church or the comments from a former president of Western Christian College at a fundraising dinner saying he likes to attend the last service for a church in hopes that Western Christian will be given the assets.   We think to ourselves “this cannot and will not happen” but it already has.  Look in Turkey, the land that brought the apostle Paul fame – the land of Ephesus, Galatia, Colossae, Nicaea.  Turkey at one point in time was a land where the Christian message was proclaimed and churches were born, but today the Christian population is reported to be less than one percent.    If one is fortunate enough to wander around the hillsides of Turkey than he/she is able to see many Byzantine churches that have been stripped of their altars and crosses.  Many of these former churches have been turned into mosques, others have been turned into museums and still others have been left to rot.  Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, The Preaching Life, gives the imagery of what she saw while walking around an abandoned cathedral on a hillside in Turkey. 

“We turned a bend and the outline of a ruined cathedral appeared, a huge gray stone church with a central dome that dominated the countryside.  Grass grew between what was left of the roof tiles and the façade was crumbling, but even in shambles, it spoke to us. . . . It was a hull, a shell.  No living thing remained inside, and we were free to explore.

Arriving at the main portal, I stepped through and was swallowed by the sheer size of the space inside.  Very little of the roof had survived, but the massive walls still held plaster frescoes with the shadows of biblical scenes on them.  There were lambs of God carved on the stone capitals and medieval saints with their faces chipped away.  Some of the best stones had been plundered for other purposes, but those that remained testified to the care and expense that had been lavished on this house of God.

Poking around, I found evidence of campfires in one side chapel.  The other had been turned into a garbage dump, where rats prowled for scraps.  From the transept I heard the sound of children and returned to find them playing soccer on the green lawn that covered the floor of the central nave, while a couple of sheep grazed under the apse.  In the dome above, it was still possible to see one outstretched arm of the Pantocrator who had presided over the eucharist; the rest of him had flaked away.  Sitting down under what was left of his embrace, I surveyed the ruins of the church.”[3] The land that at one point in time promised a flourishing ministry for the apostle Paul, the land that gave reason for letters to be written in the form of exhortations, encouragements, rebukes, and for requesting prayers now lies in ruins only to be explored by the tourist. 

But one does not have to look to Turkey for an example of the church dying; we just have to look at the Church of Christ in Ontario.  Congregations reporting that their numbers are shrinking instead of growing, a growing number of young people leaving the church in hopes to find the next evangelical movement, or even worse, to find their religion in their child’s dreams.  We read the Gospel Herald and we see the same churches advertising for a minister or we read the article by Jeff Ellis stating that the Church of Christ in Ontario is in dire need of help.[4] When the church ceases to be the church, our buildings become mere buildings instead of sanctuaries for people to worship; we keep house and dream about the good old days.  When the church ceases to be the church we will eventually find ourselves assigning tasks for each individual member forgetting that we are called to extend salvation to the world; we become inwardly focused instead of thinking how we can minister to a broken and hurting world.  What happens when the church ceases to be a church?  Just watch us and we will show you.   The church has been given a voice to speak, but sadly for years the voice gave the wrong message.  For years the voices of preachers could be heard denouncing other denominations for their doctrine while proclaiming their church to have the true form of Christianity.  But now in a society of religious pluralism even these voices have been silenced.    God has given us the freedom to proclaim the good news through Jesus Christ, but with the freedom comes the possibility of loosing our voices, “to forget where we are going and why.”  We must redevelop our voices soon, we must work in the midst of the kingdom of God, we must bring salvation to a broken and hurting world.  If we don’t, we will find our crosses taken down, our pews sold, our pulpits placed in museums and our sanctuaries in shambles.    God help us regain our voices! 

[1] John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath  (New York: The Viking Press, 1967), 119-120.

[2] Beth Ann Gaede, Ending With Hope (Bethesda, MD: Alban Institute, 2002).

[3] Barbara BrownTaylor, The Preaching Life (Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1993), 3-4.

[4] Geoffrey Ellis, “The Survey: Churches of Christ in Canada, 2001,” Gospel Herald (September 2002): 7-9.

Published in: on January 22, 2007 at 1:55 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. This is a powerful piece of writing, Nathan. Thank you for posting it. It has stirred much thought and reflection in my heart.

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