What do people see when they walk through the door of your church? I’m staying in North Devon for a few days and I’ve wandered in to a few local churches. In the past, my prime interest was in the architecture and history of the building. I have an instant reaction of pleasure or disappointment to the ‘feel’ of a building, the space, the fabric. My second response is usually to the liturgical layout – distanced or people-centred. My response to the churches I’ve visited this week has been to question what kind of God-experience they communicate and what message they give to the people who visit – and probably to the regular members of their congregations.
What’s important for the congregation of each church as indicated by the notices that greet you and the messages they convey? Often is ‘please keep this door shut’ (to keep heat in or birds out) or ‘mind the step’ or ‘turn the handle to the right’. Practical information can be important, and several of the churches have prominent information about access for people with mobility disability.
Sometimes the outside notice board says welcome and sometimes there’s a sign saying welcome in the porch or just inside the church, but the signs are often small and tentative in their welcome.
Other things are much more important to communicate, information for the congregation which at its best is displayed with an eye on the newcomer or visitor. So, I find:
- A who’s who sheet, often with pictures, of the clergy, wardens, PCC and Deanery Synod members, organist, Sunday school teachers, etc. These sheets and pictures personalize the congregation – and reveal the age and gender profile!
- Rotas – sometimes extensive
- Information about groups and regular activities – choir, Mother’s Union, bell ringers, children and young people, youth group, the elderly, men’s prayer breakfast, Alpha course.
- Planned giving and fund raising including fabric and organ appeals
- Appeals for donations
- Guide books and information about artifacts in the church
- A notice saying the blessed sacrament is reserved here
- An invitation to say a prayer
- A notice that says God is in this building
I find that last notice really depressing. The God these people worship seems to be specially found on entering the church building and is more here inside than outside, and gives the message that it’s unlikely that people will be arriving with God in their heart and soul and it’s great you’re visiting our building because we are the keeper’s of God’s presence in this place.
What images of God do people find? Usually the images are Victorian and older, stained glass, statues, prints of old master pictures, crosses and crucifixes, a paschal candle, possibly an icon. There are other important artifacts – war memorials, lists of incumbents, regimental flags, mediaeval and roman remains. In two churches, the most important artifacts seem to be the hassocks which are displayed on pew tops giving them a dramatic visual importance.
Sometimes there are people in the church. Sometimes, but not always, they say hello. Mostly they want to tell me about the building and the things in it that are important to them. They never want to know about me and what has brought me to this place.
These church buildings and their notices and messages communicate that a whole variety of things are important to this congregation and what goes on in their church for the people who worship here and use the building.
But they communicate very little about the God I experience, the God I search for and the God I already know in my heart and silence – quite the reverse, in fact.
I find myself dragged back fifty years or more to the routine of going to church in my youth and to feelings about Church, Christianity and God which are heavy, depressingly familiar, disappointing and life-extinguishing. I feel shackled by the unchanging character of these buildings.
I don’t find what I yearn for in my heart and soul – that which gives life and energy, light and colour and vision, expansion of being, that draws me in and centres me, and opens hope and creativity.
Congregations and clergy assume their building and its contents and images will speak for themselves – and they do – they are distancing, archaic, and mostly they depress me.
There are, of course, churches that communicate well and create a positive, spiritual experience for and in the visitor. Some have notice boards and display panels that begin to describe some of the qualities of God and faith that I seek for myself and for others and that I believe are of universal truth and value to all human beings.
My conclusion, drawn from long experience, is that I don’t think the ‘Church’ knows ‘God’ very well. ‘It’, the institution, the systems and structures, the fabric and buildings, the bishops and clergy and people, and congregations, are stuck in, locked into, habitual ideas and patterns of faith, learnt ideas that are very difficult to examine.
I’m sure the nostalgic familiarity and security is reassuring for many. I also suspect this habitual pattern leaves many people dissatisfied, unsatisfied, and frustrated, the depths of their being which yearns to be nourished left unnourished and untouched. So people drift away, or visit churches but fail to find that which touches and opens the depths of their being or sparks a flame in their heart.
Yes, it’s a heart thing. I think there is a huge gulf between many people’s routine experience of God mediated through Sunday worship or through the environment of a church building and the yearning for God the Living Presence, Being itself, the infinite and unconditional lover, who melts souls and warms hearts and energises and enlivens the core of our being, universal creator and co-creator.
Everyone already knows God in the core of their being, even if they are consciously unaware of the divine presence. Many are seekers, experiencing the faint awareness of the ‘other’, the longing for that which meets us in the depths of despair and ecstasy, fullness of life.
But Church doesn’t know God very well, and therefore is unable to communicate with those whose hearts are stirring and searching, seeking the unconditional love of God in which we are all immersed and which, when experienced, melts and heals and knows us fully.