As I've written about on a few occasions, my congregation, Bergthal Mennonite, has been walking a challenging road these last few years. At the center of our struggle has been what to do with our church building when we close our doors in a little less than a year from now. Of course we all know, on a head level, that the building is not the church. The church is the people. And yet, special buildings, such as church buildings, often become a sacred temple in which we preserve some of our most special memories from the past. So much so, that in time, a building almost feels like a living entity too. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but it can be tricky. Church buildings are very often wonderful instruments of ministry and provide a needed place to ground ourselves in community. But these same buildings also often limit our freedom and our imagination.
Decades ago there was serious consideration given to selling our church building and buying a different church building in a nearby town. Many thought that might be our only shot at actually growing as a congregation. Over the years, many Bergthal folk have expressed their conviction that in hindsight, this conversation represented a tipping point in the life of our congregation. Moving may or may not have resulted in growth. But choosing to stay in our beautiful and beloved brick church built in 1915 and smack dab in the middle of nowhere almost certainly assured our demise.
After much heartache, conversation, prayerful discernment and time, we have decided to raze our building in a year or so. Rather than watch it slowly fall in on itself as time and weather take their toll, we want to give it a proper burial. That’s one reason, but it’s not the only one. There is still hope that some sort of church fellowship may yet emerge in Bergthal’s wake. But there is a quiet acknowledgment that in order for this to happen, we most likely need to be free of our building.
As I’ve worked to get a handle on the dynamics that have brought Bergthal to this present moment in time, I’ve realized in many ways the Christian Church as a whole is walking a parallel path. The church is in decline. I believe too many of us witness our congregations getting smaller. In the majority of churches across this country, decline is the rule, not the exception. While we at Bergthal have maybe clung too long to our building, the institutional church, it seems, is clinging just as tightly to its cherished structure.
Second Corinthians 3:12-18 from the Jerusalem Bible reads,
“Having this hope, we can be quite confident; not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites would not notice the ending of what had to fade. And anyway, their minds had been dulled; indeed, to this very day, that same veil is still there when the old covenant is being read, a veil never lifted, since Christ alone can remove it. Yes, even today, whenever Moses is read, the veil is over their minds. It will not be removed until they turn to the Lord. Now this Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, with our unveiled faces reflecting like mirrors the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.”
Have our traditions perhaps become like a veil which dull not only our minds but our spirits as well? Paul writes here that when we turn to God the veil will be lifted and this God is the Spirit who breathes freedom into our midst. No doubt letting go of some our cherished traditions and even beliefs will take us far outside our comfort zones. But freedom, particularly freedom inspired by the Holy Spirit, is rarely comfortable.
How might the Spirit breathe new life into the church? What do we need to let go of? How do we open ourselves to embrace needed but perhaps uncomfortable change? Do you hear whispers, can you catch a glimpse of what church could be?