The area where I live is one of the oldest settled areas in Canada. Before the arrival of European settlers, there was a thriving Native population. European settlers arrived here in 1605 and have been here every since. As might be expected, we have a great many old buildings. The coffee shop where I treat myself to the world’s greatest cinnamon buns, for example, is housed in a building put up in 1747, although the coffee and cinnamon buns are much newer.
Among the old buildings are several unused church buildings of various denominations. Some of them belong to denominations that have no problem dealing with old, unused church buildings. The bishop, presbytery, committee or some other outside organization signs a paper and the building disappears or is sold and become an antique shop or funky house. But other denominations, like the one I belong to, have serious problems because control of the building belongs to the membership.
But one of the interesting realities is that when the membership passes, control of the building seems to vest itself in a variety of people who want it kept for a variety of reasons. Some have fond memories of family members who attended there. Some are deeply appreciative of the architecture of the building. Some swoon over the historical connections of the building. Some see it as a possible money making opportunity–a wedding chapel or something like that.
Everyone wants it preserved and repaired and painted. But very few want to pay the money and put in the time to make all that happen–and the few who do soon discover that having an unused church building to look after can be a major source of frustration, aggravation, stress and anger.
Interestingly enough, very few people see the building for what it really is. An unused church building is the last sign physical of a once vibrant worshipping community. It speaks of the faith that brought people to God and each other; a faith that enabled relatively poor people to build a building to house their congregation; a faith that sustained that worshipping community for many years–but also a faith that faded as its membership aged and moved and died.
If the congregation was faithful and worked at being the church, the deteriorating building isn’t the last sign of the former congregation’s life, nor is it even the best symbol of the legacy of the congregation. To really know the value of a congregation, it is necessary to look at the lives touched by the congregation who used to worship in that building. How many were helped through the valley of the shadow of death? How many discovered the wonder of God’s grace? How many found a cup of cold water when they needed it? How many found their lives more abundant because of that congregation?
Unfortunately, answers to questions like that are sometimes hard to find. People move away; communities shrink and fade away; memories grow dim. The people who were touched by that congregation may not be anywhere near the old building–and the building probably isn’t anywhere near as important to them as the people who once made up the congregation.
I like old church buildings–but then, I like all church buildings, from the huge cathedral to the mud and wattle hut in the Kenyan bush. But I like the congregations that inhabit the buildings even more. I might appreciate the furtively scratched ship drawings hidden on the back pew in the balcony of an old unused church building but I appreciate even more the legacy of the congregation that used to inhabit that building. Their worship might have bored at least one budding artist, but it also touched lives and made a difference.
The old building might have historical, architectural, cultural and emotional significance but the real story and real value of the building is written in the lives of those who built it and worshipped in it and in the lives touched by that group of people. What happens to the building after the worshipping community ceases to exist? Let the historians and the architects and the culture buffs and the nostalgia surfers figure it out. I am going to take some pictures, thank God for the church that used to be there and worship somewhere else, where God is using another group of believers to touch lives.
May the peace of God be with you.