Tuesday, March 12, 2013

And here are the steeples . . .

Founded in 1831, Salem Presbyterian
Church (I called it "Shalom"
on Sunday) with neighboring
steeples from Episcopal, Baptist, and
Methodist churches, lends a sense
of aesthetic harmony to the center of
town.  But Salem Pres is, I think, the
most beautiful.  The city is Salem,
I have not always appreciated the look of churches.  There was a time when I thought it was a waste to spend money on stained-glass windows.  Sometimes I suspect that the beauty of a sanctuary may actually distract attention from God, and the formal clothes one wears can be a disguise, so God can't spot us on the pew.  The worship sometimes seems more real, more spontaneous, conducted in a room with no distractions.  I'm not sure if these feelings were an accident of my own history -- growing up with more formal worship, then learning the extemporaneous, more open style in a bombed-out ex-hospital in Hong Kong, with Youth With a Mission, or whether there really is a causative link. 

Grace Methodist beautifies a city that
(in its old core) is already rather
pretty despite some noisy cars, North
Augusta, South Carolina.  (Just across
the Savanna River from the famous
golfing mecca.) 
Plus I often felt, in China and Taiwan, that local churches looked too western.  Why not build worship halls that look like a temple, with cool Chinese-style "gargoyles" on the roof, and pillars and incense?  Or in a more austere, classical mood, how about something in the style of the Temple of Heaven, in Beijing? 

Be that as it may -- and I still don't like hard wooden pews -- I'm coming to appreciate the beauty of traditional church buildings, and how they redeem a landscape. 

COLUMN: Dr. David Marshall and GUMC Take a Stand for God and Christianity
Talking with a gentleman at
Grace Methodist in North
Augusta, South Carolina.  From
the North Augusta Star.

American cityscapes need a lot of redeeming, especially the new parts of town, and some run-down districts.  Strip malls may or may not be convenient -- why don't they ever sell real food at a "convenient store," is heart disease supposed to be the most convenient way to die? -- but how they do uglify.  I am beginning to think concrete may sometimes be an actual sin, a betrayal of our calling to take care of the Earth, one of too many sacrifices we make to the great god Auto. 

Here, by contrast, are four churches I spoke at in the South this winter, in four different states, with a little of their history. 

North Avenue Pres, in downtown
Atlanta.  Built from Stone
Mountain granite, North Avenue
has also hosted Korean, Eritrean,
Kenyan, and Sudanese fellowships,
and many mainland Chinese
scholars on Sunday morning from
nearby Georgia Tech. 
Religion poisons everything?  Hogwash.  Around the world, in a modern, industrialized landscape, even religions I don't mostly believe in save some part of our souls in this limited sense. 

These four churches also seemed to anchor their communities in deeper ways -- as centers of community, ministry that stretches beyond those communities to the world, and spiritual nournishment for those who come.  I enjoyed getting to know their pastoral staff a little, and watching people who obviously cared for one another interact.  It appeared that God was working through their ministries, and that there were some wonderful people in their churches who do seem to be making a difference in the world.

That's perhaps the best part of these speaking tours.  (Though I also enjoyed hiking on the Appalachian Trail this Sunday afternoon!)

I see the value of churches like Mars Hill Fellowship, with box store architecture, but intense outreach to hurting and disfunctional people like us.  But even Mars Hill is now renting the beautiful old United Methodist Church in downtown Seattle, along with the former Hillcrest Pres in West Seattle, where I grew up.  Maybe we can do the one, without neglecting the other.  Maybe God does want us to redeem our world with beauty that all can see, even while we try to unpretentiously befriend our neighbors with Christ's love.   

So here are a few steeples. 

Open the doors, and you're likely to meet some great people. 

West Huntsville Baptist, Alabama, is a thriving, multi-ethnic
fellowship in a part of town that has been a little neglected.  Watch out for the
trees in the parking lot! I like a church
that won't make ask trees get out of the way of the automobiles!   

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