Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Mark Galli - Should the Church Make People Comfortable?

Mark Galli has an interesting article on the growing lack of Christian symbols in churches today. The article was occasioned by a court case. A high school was planning on having their graduation ceremony at a church and five of the students, one of them being Jewish, said they would feel very uncomfortable in this church given the amount of symbols that adorned it. I don’t care to comment on the merits of the case but it’s Galli’s comments about the growing trend among new churches not to include distinctive Christian symbols including the cross that interests me. He recognizes some churches have theological reasons for not including them but this is not where his concern lies. It is those churches who seem to boast in the fact that they don’t have Christian symbols in the interest of making everyone comfortable and more conducive to secular events. Galli asks, “But does it strike anyone else as odd how reticent many churches are to make it plain to visitors that when they enter the church, they are entering a sovereign state where someone besides the State is Lord?” Some who responded to Galli emphasized that the church is not a building but the people and that there are plenty of dead Christians in ornate buildings and plenty of vibrant Christians in simple buildings with no stain glass windows. This seems to miss Galli’s point. He never suggests that more ornate buildings or the mere presence of symbols will guarantee any kind of spirituality in those who worship there as opposed to those who worship without such adornments. His point is that the building should reflect who is Lord of the space. He says,
“There was a time in the church's life when people were killed for stating or symbolizing their allegiance to another lord besides Caesar. One can understand why some would flinch and stick their cross necklace under their toga, or meet secretly in places (like catacombs) bereft of Christian symbols. Caesar had no patience with people whom he suspected served another. And yet most did not flinch, and most continued to affirm in word and symbol the church's earliest creed: Jesus is Lord.”
“Today, when there is no risk to symbolizing one's allegiance to another Lord besides Capitalism or Democracy or America, why are we so hesitant to do so? Why is it that in the one place where we have the right and opportunity to proclaim the Lord of the kingdom of heaven, so many of us want to make it a place that is "conducive to secular events"?”
The most immediate response might be that our economic times being what they are a church is just being a wise steward of its resources if it can make a building available for other functions and recoup some of its cost for the facility. That being said I think some churches that are so lacking in anything distinctively Christian can foster a mindset that it is a place really no different from the shopping mall or a high school gymnasium. I’ve watched families put out a veritable picnic for their children to keep them entertained (no kidding--juice drinks, bananas, granola bars etc). Can we not abstain from eating or drinking for one hour? The focus has become primarily making people feel relaxed and comfortable during worship instead of fostering a sense of awe because we are uniquely in the presence of God. When I visited a local Orthodox church he commented how for the Orthodox it is important that all of the senses are impacted in worship (sight, sound and smell). He asked me, “Why are Protestants so comfortable meeting in a gymnasium?” His question was an honest one. I realized that as I looked around my eyes saw one reminder after another of the glory of the Lord.

Now I know there is nothing wrong with being comfortable and we should be. But comfort can quickly become casual and commonplace. When I visit churches I have to admit that the older churches create an entirely different mood in me. I know that even the most ornate churches can become commonplace to those who frequent them week after week but I still sense a difference. Yeah, it’s just a building. But it’s a building built first and foremost to the honor and glory of the Lord. 

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