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Wholly Bible: A View from the Pew

Malls and Amazement


Sitting in church the other day, I thought about the mall.

No, I was not fantasizing about Pottery Barn and Sbarro. I was thinking about all the big new churches now that aim to look and feel like the mall, and how glad I am that my little church does not.

My church is the old-fashioned kind -- stone arches, long pews, wooden altar rails and tall
stained glass panels that tell the stories of Jesus.

In the sweepstakes of religious competition, little neighborhood congregations like mine
(with their cramped parking lots) struggle against the dazzling new normal -- the large
churches that forsake steeples and hymnals and dress codes and stained glass and silence.
According to surveys, fewer and fewer young people and families now attend churches that
were built before World War II.

I have visited some of the new churches. They are serious about ministry. They are reaching
people in new ways.

But something I long for is missing there: the feeling that church should be different from
the rest of the week. Sitting in a church with its century-old walls and bright stained glass is
a jarring contrast to the busy street outside. It says: We will honor things that embarrass
conventional society -- awe, reverence, amazement, majesty, the past. It says: This is a guest
house of the spirit. Here your soul can take refuge for a while. You are invited into the
silence. Listen to your life talking to you. Listen for God.

I think church should look and feel different from everyday life because Jesus set the
example. He was always tripping up conventional thinking. He questioned public power and
high-octane public prayers. He confounded the rich and threw everybody off with his curve-
ball sayings ... The first shall be last ... Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek. A Nazareth
carpenter, not a comic-book super hero, becomes the world's savior.

There's nothing sacred about stained glass and candlelight. But there is something sacred
about being attentive to the soul and giving it space to breathe and repair. The history of
churches is a history of sacred spaces that were built to provide sanctuary from the noisy
grasping world. In such places the soul can be nurtured, fed, protected, acknowledged.

My hunch is awe, reverence, grandeur and silence are not the marks of some musty worship
style that has had its day. I think those things are a fixed condition of human need across
the ages. Without them, we wither and flatten out. They are also reality checks against the
human itch to forget God and get bossy and overconfident, clear signs that folly and disaster
will soon follow.

That's what a church should do when you sit down inside one -- reawaken wonder, summon
holiness, stir the soul. That's what my little old church does, despite all the trends. I hope all
churches make people feel that way.

--Columnist Ray Waddle, author of two books published
Upper Room Books, lives in Bethel, Conn.

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