Within church architecture one can quickly determine what a particular congregation’s theology and community was like when the building was built. For many urban congregations like ours, the building was built as a community was growing and people were moving from a more rural living setting to an urban one. Growing up with the community made for distinct advantages to congregations like ours including making the churches often double as community centers.
However, in the 1920’s another movement was at its height; we know these groups as “societies” and para-church organizations. At the building of this church this movement was in it's heyday; partly because women were still not accepted in work places, many went to “work” with various societies and clubs which both furthered the community and had big impacts on the churches. We know the remnant of these societies on the religious side like the American Bible Society and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and secularly in the American Red Cross, among others. The purpose of these organizations, both secular and religious, was to make the communities and the world a better place.
Basically, the idea was that if we work on our communities, helping out our neighbor, we make our own lives stronger and more complete. It is the idea that when you are stronger individually, everyone is stronger. However, unlike the contemporary mindset of "what do I get out of it?" this was not selfish or self-serving, just a simple observation that if my neighbor is stronger, everyone is stronger, if my neighbor suffers, everyone suffers.
So the social societies came about to address those issues and with educated women who were looking to make a difference, these societies became their jobs. In the 20's and 30's it would not have been odd to see a great deal of activity at churches, both with internal societies and external ones, so often the buildings were built with meeting spaces, social spaces, and dedicated worship spaces.
As times changed post World War 2 and every decade thereafter brought more women into the workforce, the volunteers and societies began to diminish, and by the late seventies the churches which were once bristling with daily activity became empty during most weeks, and many of the groups churches relied on to make the church be a community center disappeared. For many churches, they could not adjust to the change of the world, and over the past three decades have seen a decline, as have many of the societies that help to strengthen the church.
Unfortunately, many churches did not deal with this change well. Emphasis was placed more on the internal community and worship than reaching out to the needs of the greater community and their worship needs. This change also feted the role of pastor which with the decline of volunteers, the position changed from teacher and theologian in resident to CEO and surrogate for all care ministries of the church. Another fundamental change!
The problem with all of this is that whether in architecture, or service, or position, most of the change that the church (that is the global church) has had to face over the years is neither intentional nor even at times thought through; it is merely a forced response to an ever changing world.
The problem that has created in the modern church is that because we have not been intentional and often do not know why we do what we do, we cannot be bold in our community because we lack foundation. This can be seen most vividly in some of the contemporary architecture where churches are often designed more as warehouses or lecture halls to fill rather then sacred spaces, usually the reason given being more about filling with people versus glorifying God! The deeper problem is that when the world changed and the volunteer force changed, instead of thinking and being intentional about the needs of the community, the church continued, and by the 90's and 2000's many would argue, mainline protestantism became irrelevant because it became disconnected with the community because the community changed. While churches changed, they did so often without thought and even more often being somewhat self-serving. Personally I think that while churches like ours were intentionally built to be a community anchor, many forgot that along the way, and through their own self-righteousness, placed themselves above and outside the area they were called to be in, no longer asking themselves why they were doing what they were doing and if they were serving any needs.
Having been in ministry of some type over the last 20+ years, I recognize now more than ever how the lack of intentionality destroys the message of God. It causes many churches to spin their wheels, and often it is the cause for burnout and conflict in the church. It also causes many churches to make bad decisions. During the Lenten Soup Suppers were are seeing examples of people who made and continue to make decisions to be intentional about how they live their lives. Not acting for money, or even security, but making choices based on their faith and the desire to do what is right.
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Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen