For the majority of my growing-up years, I attended the same church in the same building with (generally) the same people every week. And (generally) I loved the opportunities I’d have to be there and be with the people I grew up knowing.Leaving for college presents its own challenge of finding a new church home, and the transient nature of my past few years at college hasn’t helped me lay down any temporary roots anywhere.
But last April I found a small community of believers who seemed to really get it. Or at least would be honest enough to say they were still trying to get it. My first time joining them in worship, I walked away with a word on my mind that I’d never considered using to describe any church I’d ever been a part of. “Human” was never a way I’d describe a church service before attending Midtown.
The night of Ash Wednesday I attended their service to begin the Lenten season at the invitation of a professor here at school. Luckily for me, a blizzard rolled through the area that day and my car was buried in two feet of snow, so I was late.
We met in an old church that looked a lot like those churches we Protestants turn an evil eye toward on Saturdays when their parking lots fill up with parishoners sadly misguided in their theology. We’ll gladly take a renovated, abandoned mall over a building with stained glass and icons. What does that say about our worship spaces and what we value?
The building showed its age. I had to enter through a side door through the basement because the front door was blocked with snow. Inside, we gathered in the sanctuary space, complete with domed roof in desperate need of repair, stained glass and an old pipe organ. The floor and pews creaked and children make their childish noises, but for some reason it seemed natural. There were no fancy lights, just a simple projector hooked up so people could sing along to violin, guitar, banjo, and even a lyre. Whatever was available and could be played was. We read Scripture and the prayers for the day of the lectionary, confessed sins, rejoiced in the kingship of Christ, and recognized our brokenness by communion and receiving the ashes.
I spent the rest of my semester getting to learn this community of believers. I fell in love with the lectionary and its rich prayers and contemplation on Scripture. The love of Christ was expressed through our shared meal with whomever desired to join us, an extension of our practice of the Eucharist which preceded every meal.
Returning home over the summer, I missed this place. I missed its simplicity and the thoughtfulness of its people. I missed singing the Doxology to banjo.
Right now the community is in flux. The old church I’d grown to love, which mirrored the redeemed brokeness of the people inside it, is no longer available to the community, leaving the body without a place to call our own.
We visited a potential building this past Saturday. An old gymnasium and community center that housed a children’s rescue center and after school program. As I stood on the gym floor, listening to the voices of the people echoing around and the sound of basketballs bouncing off rims, I began to hate the place. Not because it was a terribly ugly place, but because it wasn’t the old brick church. “We can’t hold our service with all its sacredness and humanity on a gym floor,” I thought. Where were the symbols, the icons, the stained glass and the peeling roof that so perfectly mirrored my own sense of brokenness and need of repair?
I’ve always heard preached that the church is made up of people and not a building. Redeemed sinners are the church. The building is just a place where we meet. We say these things, but do we really mean them? Standing in that gym around the same people I’d been enjoying Christian community with for the past few months, I didn’t think of it as church. I wanted the atmosphere, the stained glass, the crappy ceiling. That was the Midtown I knew, the church I wanted to be a part of. That church couldn’t exist on a gymnasium floor. And I’d only been a part of this community for a few months.
I wonder what the church I grew up in would feel like taken out of our brick building, away from our orange pews and green carpet, our ministry center and playground and school-classroom-turned-sunday-school-classrooms. Would I consider it the same church? Or is the identity of the church in my mind and heart wrapped up in the bricks and steel that surrounds the space in which we meet?
The material of the church building defines so much of the atmosphere, the feeling and emotion of a group of believers that it’s often difficult to divorce the people from the building. But if I love a church community because of the feeling, the atmosphere, the service or the building, then I really only love what the church gives to me. I don’t love the church for the people that make it up.
“Human” was how I felt walking away from my first experience with the community of Midtown. But this should be how every church community feels. For the Church is human, made up of individuals who are finding what it means to be human in the truest sense of the word, human how we were intended to be. Human in the garden-sense of the word, free of shame from each other and bearing our naked souls to one another and to the God we walk with in the cool of the day.