Church Buildings or Museums? Pilgrims or Tourists?

Our church buildings are becoming museums of Christianity containing the relics of the Christian religion as it was once was but is no more!  By the end of the present century, if present trends revealed to us by writers such as Diana Butler Bass and Phyllis Tickle concerning “emergent-Christianity” are valid, most of our church buildings may have only historical value.

I remember in 1994, not too long after the fall of the Soviet Union, standing in the Cathedral of St. Isaac in St. Petersburg, Russia.   I was not there to worship and seek God as a pilgrim.   I was there as a tourist to “see the sights”.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral, the largest of many cathedrals in the city of St. Petersburg  built by Tsar Peter the Great, was built by order of Tsar Alexander I in the years 1818-1858.   It took 40 years to construct this magnificent building.   It’s massive dome is covered with pure gold.  Inside it is all marble with beautiful columns covered in lapis lazule so perfectly it looks like the columns are solid lapis lazuli.   Outside, the building is constructed of stone with 112 red granite columns with Corinthian capitals— each column hewn and erected as a single block.

St. Isaac’s is a beautiful museum for an earlier Christian Orthodox religion.  But today it is a museum.    Services are held only in one small part of this awesome building—a small chapel.   The rest of the visitors, who come each year by the thousands, are tourists who come to see this magnificent structure.   As tourists, they come and see and admire the building—-they do not come as pilgrims seeking God.    Then they leave—never to return in most cases because they have seen the building.

As a pastor, I have experienced this same phenomenon in many churches I have served who lovingly construct and care for their beautiful building, and then do not have the money to spend for ministry and outreach. Many of these church buildings that once housed many are rapidly becoming   huge well-cared-for museum of the Christian religion with a small enough number of members that a small chapel would suffice for their worship services.

Those who come to these churches come to admire their beauty ((as Idid St. Isaac’s) but they are not seeking to find God in the building.   They come as “tourists” to see the beautiful stained glass windows, to sit in soft, cushioned seats in the beautiful sanctuary and  listen to the organ (an instrument they feel is already a relic of the past), to sing hymns (many that were written in the words of and for an era long past their experience).    These “tourists” (we sometimes call them “Visitors”) come and admire and enjoy it all and then they are gone.   Few return.  They’ve seen it!   They’ve heard it!  But these folks are still pilgrims in search of a God to be revealed to them who can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others—-a God whom they can serve; a God that cares about humankind.

They look at these beautiful church buildings and often wonder if the money spent on them and organs and sound equipment, etc. might better be spent in helping the needy and the poor.

Richard Rohr, in his book “A Lever and a Place to Stand” writes:  “when our windows have too much self–conscious dressing hanging on them, you often never see beyond the window itself.   Much of “high church” is still back in the days of the book of Leviticus, written by the priests in love with ‘smells and bells’, and too preoccupied with the sanctuary instead of the world and the people God is suffering with.”  (p. 51)

You see, most Christians who claim to follow Jesus, have not learned that to be His disciple is not about beautiful  buildings, its not about rituals in those buildings—-its about loving relationships with fellow humans and with God out in the world where the pain and the suffering and the brokeness is.   It is about serving the people as Rohr puts it that “God is suffering with.”

A recent church I served as interim pastor developed a wonderful program to feed the needy a full meal every Friday.   They developed a food pantry for times in between and a clothing closet where items of used clothing were made available.    They were following in the steps of Jesus.    Then, just months after I left, they ended this program for the homeless and needy because a few feared for their safety and the safety of their beautiful church building.   The church board in an emergency meeting voted to close the program immediately before the next Friday, with no warning and no imput from many of the volunteers who worked in the program.

Now all this church needs to do is join with far too many other churchs in hanging out a new sign.   The sign should read:   CHURCH MUSEUM—NOW OPEN!

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