Church as place

An interesting discussion developed last night in my monthly discussion forum on interim ministry matters. We have this church building dating back to 1843 — to what extent does it limit us, and to what extent is it a strength for the congregation? We talked briefly about the “big box” churches which you can find interspersed with the strip malls on Randall Road. Should we be out there, in a new, spacious building that could accomodate growth?

That discussion has gotten me thinking about what it means to have a sense of place. The “big box” churches seem to me to have no sense of place. They could be anywhere in North America. I feel there may be a theological message there — no need to worry about a sense of place here on earth, because the ultimate goal is to get to another place.

But do our Unitarian Unviersalist church buildings need a sense of place? Mike Durrall, in the final chapter of his recent book The Almost Church, seems to argue that we should aim for placeless big box churches. I love nearly everything in Mike’s book, but here I have to disagree with him.

I am coming to believe a sense of place can be a real asset to a congregation, with obvious caveats. Here in Geneva, our historic building creates obvious and problematic limitations — it’s so small we have to have three worship services, renovations are limited by the historic character of the building, the much-loved pews are not comfortable for tall people like me, etc. Yet our building also creates a deep sense of place, which has both theological and practical value.

As for the practical value, the historic building has proved attractive to newcomers. One of the “Mystery Visitors” who came and evaluated our church in the fall summed it up, saying: “As an artist and a lover of architecture, I found the building itself to be astonishly beautiful both inside and out. I was truly moved by the loving care the building has obviously received. I was impressed with it as a visual and physical symbol of our Unitarian Universalist heritage.” Our building is the oldest building west of the Alleghenies that has been used continuously as a Unitarian or Universalist church — it is a visible reminder of how liberal religion moved westwards. Dave Karcher calls it “a Unitarian Universalist shrine,” and he’s right.

But I believe there’s theological value in our old building, too. The more I explore ecological theology, the more value I find in having a sense of place. A sense of place means setting down roots, it means awareness of my human interdependence with the surrounding natural world, and awareness of how I fit into the surrounding human culture. A sense of place also means connections with ancestors, and connections with the generations to come. Care for a historic building like ours forces us to think about the hands that laid the stones for the walls seven or so generations ago, and to plan ahead seven generations or more so that this building (and the surrounding ecosystem!) will still be here.

While not every church building will have this deep rootedness in the surrounding place, I’ve come to believe more and more that our congregations should be thinking about the theological role of place.

(Those of you who read this blog from afar can find a picture of the Geneva church at 102 South Second St., on a Web site of pictures of historic Geneva.)