Over the past couple of weeks I have been taking pictures of old churches. Not the usual scenic, picturesque shots of lovely old buildings with quaint towers and pretty churchyards, but of dead churches: buildings that once were home to vibrant congregations, but which are now used for other purposes. Some have become lovely little homes; some are restaurants or bars or shops; some are sitting derelict and vandalised. There are a lot of them.
Some of them are small, wooden chapels built to a budget; others are large and ornate and expensive; all of them represent the end of end of a particular dream. Once there was a fundraising campaign and pledges and cake stalls and a large billboard with a thermometer drawn on it. Once there were people who gave sacrificially to erect the building and others who spent countless hours tending and decorating it. Once there was the murmur of prayers and the sound of massed voices singing along to an organ or a harmonium. Once there was a youth group and a women's guild and a man with a clerical collar, and processions with the Bible or with a brass cross, but no more. Now there are beds or a till or birds nests.
I have been wondering a bit why I am wondering about these old buildings. One reason is because they are the sign of social change on a grand scale, and of course there are other buildings scattered around the countryside which tell the same or a similar tale: old post offices and banks and factories and rows of empty shops and whole streets of decaying houses which speak of shifts in mobility and economics and community relationships. These old churches though are saying something else to me. The old regional banks have been replaced by bigger banks in the cities and the factories have moved to Auckland or (more likely) Beijing. The stuff sold in the wrecked shops is now bought online or at The Warehouse. The old churches have not been replaced by anything. Some of those which once housed a congregation of one of the traditional denominations may well have had a short spell as home to one of the "newer" church groups, but now the activities for which the building was first erected have disappeared entirely.
These empty worship shells scattered around the countryside are the signs of the death of a particular religious infrastructure. I look at them with such fascination, I think, because they represent a process which is still continuing. A particular way of meeting the spiritual needs of our society is disappearing because it no longer meets the needs of our society, and still we are preoccupied with preserving it: keeping our buildings open and making sure our functionaries are paid and making sure the committee structures which kept the whole system turning over are filled with the fewer and older and wearier people who still give us allegiance. I think we have missed -are missing - the point.
The role of the church is to introduce people to the Living God and open them to the transforming power of the presence of God. Gradually we have forgotten to do this. We have forgotten how to do this. We have forgotten, even, that we are supposed to do this. And quite naturally, and quite rightly, the infrastructure we have created precisely to help us to do this crumbles and dies.
The old churches tell me one thing and they tell it to me clearly and loudly: The church must facilitate personal transformation or it must cease to exist. It is time to forget the infrastructure except to the extent that it facilitates the one essential task of the Church. As my Lord tells me, "seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all the rest will be added to you as well."