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Cathedrals & Ruins…

April 20, 2015

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Over the years, there has been much discussion within the church and communities of faith about how to reverse declining membership. In the 1950’s it was almost a “Field of Dreams” sort of thinking when it came to church growth. If you build the building, they will come! And for a decade or so, they did come. Something began to shift though and what had worked in the 1950’s no longer seemed to work as well in the 1980’s and beyond.

When I visited the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset, England in 2007, I was moved deeply. And when I look at the picture I took back then which is at the top of this blog, I am reminded of that pilgrimage which I made eight years ago. What touched me deeply in 2008 was the history of what had happened in that place so long ago. During the turbulent period of the suppression and dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, Glastonbury Abbey was destroyed and the last Abbot, Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn, and quartered on the Glastonbury Tor.

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Today you can hike to the top of the Tor and visit St. Michael’s Tower, which is all that remains of the Abbey of St. Michael. As I pondered the construction of these great monuments, I tried to get inside of the heads of the builders and the designers. When they built these great churches, I am sure they thought these buildings would be a long-lasting memorial to the builders as well as an offering to the glory of God. In many Cathedrals that I visited throughout Europe, we would be told by the tour guide that some of the faces carved in stone as decoration were actually likenesses of the masons who built the Cathedrals or a member of the family. Somehow they felt that if their face was on the building, they would be memorialized forever. Yet hundreds of years later, many of the buildings are in ruins and the names of the builders are forgotten. The Cathedrals which remain open are often nothing more than museum pieces where you pay to take a tour or even just to pray. The buildings that were built to last for centuries haven’t (for the most part) kept up with the times. Instead these massive sentinels stand guard over a past that, frankly, isn’t coming back.

As beautiful as such monuments are and as much as I enjoy touring them, they also evoke a certain amount of sadness in me. When I was told that I couldn’t enter Westminster Abbey in London to pray and to pause at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier until I paid 10 pounds (about $20 US in 2007) I was both furious and deeply saddened. Something that had been built long ago to the glory of God was now a tourist attraction where you had to, in the words of my English friends, “pay to pray”.

I do see a parallel between these monuments built to last a millennium or more and the churches of today. We built it and they are no longer coming! So what do we do? Those are questions that keep church councils and even pastors awake at night. And there are no easy answers to their questions. There isn’t a magic wand that is going to magically bring the 1950’s back to the church, no matter how hard the church tries to wave their wands.

What I have come to see through years of ministry in unconventional settings via the military is this; the church needs to to bravely shift their paradigm. What worked in the past isn’t going to work today. And as I read more and more millennial bloggers and authors such as Rachel Held Evans, I have discovered that they don’t want the church to try and wow the “young people” with lattes, smoke machines, trendy music, and pastors in skinny jeans. They want something deeper and more meaningful. They want something that isn’t simply a club you belong to. And, as Rachel so wonderfully puts it, “we have a well-defined B.S. meter that can detect when someone’s just trying to sell us something. We aren’t looking  for a hipper Christianity, we are looking for a truer Christianity” (RHE Interview with Jonathan Merritt @ Religious News Service, 9 March 2015).

When I was on Active duty with the Air Force, the Chief of the Chaplains’ Service headquarters decided that “coffee shops” were the answer to drawing young, single Airmen into the chapel. The Chief’s office poured a lot of money into chapels around the globe in an effort to create the “coffee shops” they remembered when they were young Chaplains in the 1970’s. The sad thing was, all of these “coffee shops” were built in dormitories, recreation centers, and even down-range; and yet, they sat empty or were sadly underutilized. Why, you might ask, didn’t this great brainstorm work? To be bluntly honest, they didn’t work because nobody bothered to ask the Airmen what they wanted or what they were looking for! At one assignment, after a rash of alcohol issues in the dorms and suicides, the higher ups decided that they knew what was best for the Airmen and built an Airmen’s Center. The top  brass were confused why it wasn’t an immediate hit with the young troops. Some of the First Sergeants and I did a rather silly thing… we asked the Airmen why they weren’t using the center. Do you know what the answer was? We don’t use it, sir, because nobody bothered to ask us what we wanted or needed. We had no say in the construction of the facility. We have some great ideas about what would help us on those long, bitterly cold winter nights when there is nothing to do. But nobody asked us, sir, not a single leader! Oh they had surveys galore, but the surveys didn’t leave any room for our ideas. And if some of us voiced our opinion, we were told in so many words that “leadership” knew what we needed better than we did.

Not all of these experiments were a bust though. When I arrived at RAF Mildenhall in England in 2005, my predecessor had already laid the ground work and garnered the funds for a Single Airmen Ministry Center. Granted, it was at the early stages when I arrived and the Youth For Christ missionary who had been hired had also just arrived in 2005. But we had a vision for this ministry center. When Micah came into my office shortly after my arrival, he wanted to talk about this ministry center. And God bless him, Micah spoke honestly and passionately about the Airmen and what he wanted to do. What was the first thing he wanted to do? Put in the cappuccino machine? Nope! The first thing Micah wanted to do was to talk with the Airmen. He had been a single Airman about ten years previously and had been stationed as a Crew Chief (mechanic) on the flightline at RAF Lakenheath down the road from us.

What evolved from the discussions with the Airmen was a vision far different from the vision the two-star general Chief of Chaplains had. They didn’t want a coffee bar with tables, Christian music playing, and board games to play. They wanted a place where they could hang out. They wanted a place where they could discuss faith if they wanted to, but didn’t want it shoved down their throat. They wanted a place with wi-fi and plenty of electrical outlets for their iPhones, computers, and other equipment where they could play games with their friends there and with friends around the world on-line. They wanted a place where relationships were genuine and people were welcomed without being pounced on. This was a place far different from the Chapel down the street from the dormitory where the center was eventually located. It was in the heart of the dormitories, not in the Chapel. And Micah became a sort of surrogate big brother to these young Airmen.

When they came home from places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Horn of Africa, they didn’t come home to families waiting for them. In fact, on many occasions, while they were away, their neighbors had moved on to new assignments and very few familiar faces remained in the dormitory. There was one familiar face and place for them to call home. That place was the SAM (the Single Airman Ministry Center) and that person was Micah. He would help them adjust to life after the war zone and get their feet on the ground again. How did Micah do this? Was it with a facility and a program? Nope, it was by establishing genuine and honest relationships, one Airman at a time.

The church can, and indeed must, learn from this experience. I don’t know if our senior Chaplain Corps leadership learned from this experiment, but I sure did. I learned along with many of my colleagues in the trenches. This is also a lesson that the church must learn if it wants to be relevant to the future and to a new generation of hesitant and skeptical believers.

The days of “build it and they will come” are gone. It isn’t about facilities or programs or the latest technology. It isn’t even about the bands and trendy music. As a young Chaplain, my colleagues and I tried to tell our bosses that ministry didn’t revolve around the Chapel facility. It revolved around Chaplains getting out where the Airmen were and it didn’t involve building something out of brick and mortar. When this young Chaplain became one of those “old leaders”, I tried to listen to the younger Airmen and do what I could to build ministry in the unique setting called the United States Military.

The church is facing some challenging times, dear reader. The church is facing challenges today just as it has in ages past. Reformation always seemed to come in the church when someone says, “Hey, wait a minute. Maybe what we have always done isn’t working any more. Maybe we need to look at things differently.” Martin Luther wasn’t satisfied with the status quo when he nailed his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. Saint Francis wasn’t satisfied with the status quo when he decided to give his dad back all of his clothes and walk naked into the future where he would hug lepers and love the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr. wasn’t satisfied with the status quo when he and his fellow activists decided that times had to change.

It is time to think outside of the box. It is time to open the doors and break down the walls that keep “strangers” out. Now I am not saying that the church has to abandon all that it is and all that it has. I am not saying out with all of the old and in with the new. What I am encouraging is this: While honoring the past and embracing what works, we need to look to the future and see just what it is that a new generation of believers is looking for in a church. It may not be what I expect it to be, either. This padre has neither a magic wand nor a crystal ball. What this padre does have is a burning desire to be Christ’s hands and feet, Christ’s voice and heart, in a world that is fractured, broken and skeptical. Are you willing, dear reader, to open the doors and step beyond the “safe” walls of the fortress or sanctuary? We have something incredible to offer the world. We can build authentic relationships with our neighbors and share the love of Christ in meaning-filled ways with others. But we can’t do that unless we are willing to open the doors and step out. Otherwise, we will remain inside a building that will one day be like the ruins at the top of this blog. A place where people once worshiped, but now is a place where tourists come to remember and to wonder.

It is a bold, brave, and downright scary step! My friends, we must take this step in the spirit of Saint Francis… in the spirit of Martin Luther… in the spirit of Oscar Romero… in the spirit of Pope Francis…. Jesus is calling us to go out into the world. He is calling us to build the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven. And He is calling us to do that one relationship at a time. Will you join me?

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One Comment
  1. Reblogged this on Pastor Michael Moore's Blog and commented:

    Over the years, there has been much discussion within the church and communities of faith about how to reverse declining membership. In the 1950’s it was almost a “Field of Dreams” sort of thinking when it came to church growth. If you build the building, they will come! And for a decade or so, they did come. Something began to shift though and what had worked in the 1950’s no longer seemed to work as well in the 1980’s and beyond…

    Written five years ago today… Wow!

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