catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 15 :: 2008.07.25 — 2008.09.12


The church proper

Every six months or so, I take my friend up on her offer to attend Sunday services at her church, St. Patrick’s.  I do so with one goal in mind: to take a deep breath of old world faith.  I’m not Catholic, but the pageantry, the buildings and the liturgy remind me enough of my Lutheran upbringing to provide me with a much-needed fix. 

I cannot help myself.  I miss the smell of wood polish and the sound of creaking pews.  I miss the feeling of humility and solemnity that washes over me when I kneel in prayer.  I even miss the dance of dust motes through colored light cast by the multitude of stained glass windows. 

There is something about an old church that makes me feel the difference between myself and God.  I know by the hushed voices that I’ve passed from the narthex into the nave.  The raised steps and altar rail further delineate the chancel area, marking off my common place from the holy.  The whole of the church is laid out to reinforce not a separation from God but a respectful distance.  It is as if that separation of spaces is the equivalent of a veil over my eyes or an averted glance.  The sign of the cross and a bow of the head transport me back through two thousand years of church history, and I am overjoyed with the feeling.

So why don’t I attend a Lutheran church, or even a Catholic one, if it is the ritual and surroundings that speak to me?  The answer to that question is the liveliness of my children’s faith.  While the specific route that brought me to the particular Baptist church I now attend is lengthy, circuitous and unimportant, what has kept me there is the raucous celebration of faith the church inspires in the congregation, especially its youth.  Growing up, I was told that Lutherans were referred to as the “frozen chosen.”  There was no Sunday school, only catechism class in order to prepare for first communion.  Every aspect of the service, and of faith in general, was conducted with the utmost gravity.  Faith was a duty not a celebration.

The first time I attended a Baptist church, I left with two impressions.  The first was that I felt as if I was at a rock concert or an animated college lecture, but it did not feel like a church service.  The second impression was that here was a service during which the congregation could ask questions, because I saw several people raising their hands – something I had never seen before.  Since that service I have also attended Catholic, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Mennonite and Southern Baptist services, in all types of buildings, with all types of music, and with varied participation from the faithful attending. 

The Baptist church I attend now is structurally huge, having twice in the last 15 years undergone renovations to enlarge the church.  The inside now resembles an auditorium at a high school, with raised theatre seating and a center stage.  Two round stained glass windows high on the side walls are the only indication the structure is used for anything other than putting on plays and concerts.  No cross adorns the stage.  There’s no everlasting candle burning.  No choir loft.  No altar rail.  No organ.  Communion is passed along the rows.  And there’s no place to kneel.  I think that I’m thankful my church hasn’t yet become a coffeehouse like the one my son said he attended with his aunt, a church where the congregation sits at high tables for four with their mocha lattes or cokes, and their bowls of popcorn or nuts, noshing their way through the service.  I worry that communion might seem just another part of the snacks.  But the kids celebrate their faith in a way I never did growing up, and the adults come back for the atmosphere not for the guilt.  That has to be worth something, right?  Perhaps it will be the tether that draws them back when they start to question their faith, which they almost certainly will at some point.

Every congregation struggles at the crossroads of ritual and modernity, of living the faith and keeping the faith alive.  That struggle, a fierce one, is no less obvious in the very structure itself than in the music that’s played.  For me, I think that struggle and its present resolution are mirrored in the slight disrespect I see in my children and their friends.  The separation between adult and child, between parent and friend has eroded over time.  I’m not talking about a generational difference of opinion, of what’s hip and cool, but rather the need for a respectful difference, for boundaries.  I tell my son this often enough:  I’m not your friend—we can joke, have a good time, show our love for each other, but when it comes down to it, I am your mom, not another 15-year-old.  In modernizing the physical building of the church, we have inadvertently collapsed the structure that separates us from God, that respectful distance that reminds us that while God loves us, He isn’t our buddy.  He’s our creator.

Deep down I know it is the church building I miss, but I cannot say if that is because it is familiar or because it is proper, because it evokes sense of personal history or because it provides a proper sense of distance.  At the same time, I value the fun my children associate with attending church and believing in God.  The celebration of faith now may be the only thing that maintains their faith in the long run.  Unfortunately, in my experience, limited as it may be to the various churches and Christian denominations I have attended, I have yet to see a church that has managed to combine both—the old world feel of a traditional church building and the new world feel of arm-waving faith.  Better yet, I’ve yet to feel a church combine the respectful distance the very nature of God demands with the joyful celebration His magnificient love and attention can engender.

While I contemplate this discussion, I am reminded that the early church often met on the sly, in back rooms and caves.  Even now, the modern church in many countries meets anywhere it can, in twos and threes if that’s all that’s possible.  And God is there among them.  They don’t waste time arguing over the aesthetics of the structure because they are still at a point when the simple act of faith in our awesome God is more important than life.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus