Should I be offended?
US Highway 20 runs west to east through the state of Oregon, from the Pacific Ocean on into Idaho and beyond; Highway 97 runs north and south, from the Columbia River down to Weed, California. The two highways cross in Bend, Oregon. Just south of this intersection, there is a snappy little brew pub—housed in what is obviously a former church building. Just a few blocks east, one will find the Bend Community Center, housed in yet another former church building. The steeple is still there, topped by a small I-beam, with a little gap where the cross-piece once fit.
Again I ask, “Should I be offended?”
When I first saw the pub, I initially thought, “Oh, there are a handful of former members somewhere in this town who mourn every time they come by here.” I saw the Community Center on my morning walk, and had a more “pedestrian” thought: “Oh, another one.” As for the missing cross-piece, I figured “Well sure—after all, it’s not a church anymore.” In other words, no offense (and I hope no one is offended by my lack of offense!)
One might well ask, “What about the epidemic of disappearing churches?” A too common event all over, but more so in the Northwest. I’ve seen former church buildings housing gift shops, restaurants, private homes, and yes, bars and even (horrors!) dance clubs. I’ve also seen abandoned church buildings, windows broken, wood rotting, steeples down. Guess which I prefer?
There are two possible stories here. One is that the congregation’s membership shrank to the point where they could no longer sustain a building, and they chose to end their ministry. This is the story that is indeed happening all across North America. It is hard; it is sad—and yet there is hopefully a legacy to be celebrated: years of service, lives changed, God praised in the name of Jesus Christ, in that place, for decades. It’s not a small thing when a congregation’s ministry closes, nor when anything good thing ends. But the thing was still good, no? And a church that thinks intentionally about the closure of its ministry and the continuation of a legacy is more likely to end up as a community center, and less likely to end up a derelict and soulless eyesore.
The other possibility is that the congregation’s membership grew to the point where the building could no longer hold them—and so they moved to a new location, where they continue to serve, to change lives, and to praise God in the name of Jesus Christ. This also happens, all across North America. And even more so across Africa, Asia, and South America. Europe and Antarctica, not so much. Allowing that a needful neighborhood has not been abandoned (congregations struggle with this when they move, or at least they should) this is also a good thing. A very good thing.
No matter what the story, we must always remember the obvious thing we frequently forget. As the old song says, “The church is not a building…the church is the people.” Whatever happens with a particular building—even a particular group of people, God continues to move God’s church (that is, people) to serve, to change lives, to sing praises in the name of Jesus Christ. Glory be and Amen!