Why The Sanctuary Is Empty

empty sanctuaryHave you been to a wedding lately?  A funeral?

I have.  And I’m finding more and more these important expressions of the faith I profess are taking place outside of a church building.

So what?

“The Church isn’t a building, it’s a people.”  Agreed.

My fear is that while we are called to live beyond the walls of the building we are still called to be the Church.  I’m sensing we are leaving behind more than stuffy tradition when we choose to hold our ceremonies at a barn/garden/backyard/event space (or in the case of a funeral, professional funeral homes).  Let me be more clear.  I have no issue with weddings in parks (or churches that meet there for that matter).  My concern is weddings that leave God off the guest list.

My concern, you see, is not where we are holding our gatherings, but how we understand these gatherings.  What are they and what are they about?

Is there something wrong when a young couple asks that I don’t mention God as part of whatever I’m going to say at the wedding?

Is there a problem when a parent bringing their child for baptism doesn’t feel comfortable professing Jesus as Lord and Savior?

I think so.

Assuming you agree these trends speak to a change in the way we think about faith and the church, I offer a few thoughts on what we might do.

1.  Teach
What is marriage?  What is baptism?  How do we think about death?  Why are these celebrations communal?  How do they speak to our faith?  If I’m not addressing these and a host of other concerns related to our rituals and practices, I am not being faithful.  What I propose here is not a rigid dogmatism or an appeal to force-feed doctrine. I want to leave room for mystery and revelation and exploration.  Teaching need not be restrictive or judgmental.  In fact, if I embrace the posture of co-learner, all can be enriched as we “work out our faith” together.  And if there’s going to be “fear and trembling”, I’d just as soon have some folks working through it all with me.

Do I have to talk about God during a wedding?  Yes.  It is God who teaches me/us about covenant and love and sacrifice and everything else that a marriage is and could be.

Does a parent have to profess faith in Jesus to have a child baptized?  Yes.  The parent is every child’s first and greatest teacher.   It is the parent’s commitment to Christ that will shape their parenting. It is the faith of the parent that will create the environment and set the stage for the child to learn about Christ.

2. Build the relationship
The questions I’ve been playing with about marriage and baptism are opportunities.  Yes opportunities to teach, but perhaps more importantly to build relationship.  This may be the greatest reason folks have turned from the church to other “sacred” spaces to conduct the important rituals in their lives.  It’s also why it feels perfectly okay for someone to perform these ceremonies who we know well even if they have to go online to get a certificate to make it all “legal”.  The relationship trumps credentials every time. And it should.  So, we/I must do more to build relationships.

And I do well to remember relationship-building is not a project. It’s not about filling up a schedule with lunch-dates.  Relationship building is about love.  It’s trust and vulnerability and time.  It’s how faith get lived out.

I have to take time to have honest conversations with folks coming to be married.  I have to invest in the mother and father who seek to have their child baptized.  There are no shortcuts.  Or more honestly, there are but they come with consequences.

3. Eliminate the barriers
If it’s simply easier to work with the event coordinator at Venue X than it is to talk with the church, we have a problem.  If the requirements to hold your ceremony at the church are more restrictive than what’s necessary to provide a safe and secure setting, we have a problem.  If I ever give the impression that the wedding/funeral/baptism/etc is an inconvenience or a distraction from my “real” work, we have a problem.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think money is the primary issue many have turned from our churches.  I know some of what these event spaces cost.  It’s not money.  It’s the service.   I’m walking a thin line here.  I don’t want to suggest the church pander to consumers looking for a good deal on a little bit of Jesus.  On the other hand, I want us to embrace what it practically looks like to “go the extra mile” and to serve others.  Anything I can do to remove obstacles and point others to Jesus is a good thing and worth my best efforts.

There are likely reasons others have looked beyond the church when they seek to experience community and meaning.  The Church has an image problem many have described and offered thoughts on.  There’s certainly more than can be said.  Still, I’m hopeful that with an increased emphasis on our “why?“, with a renewed desire to connect, and an intentional effort to reduce barriers, the sanctuary may not fill up, but God will be central whenever and wherever we gather.

What are your thoughts?

If you recently elected to hold a wedding outside a church.  Why?  What went into making your decision?

If you have some experience working through or talking with those who are turning from the Church, what insights have your found?

Life is better together,
Shawn

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