There's been a lot of talk lately about new ways of being the church. This is part of the perceived notion that mainline Protestant denominations, of which I am a part, are losing members and are unable to continue to support clergy, full church programs and old buildings. Some people find that they can't relate to the traditional church with its doctrines and rules, with its history of discrimination over issues of homosexuality or of women in ordained leadership. There is surely some truth to that. The church, once a force for social and economic change, can find itself late to the changes that are sweeping across our society. But there are some interesting signs of change.
My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has sought to invite new believers by creating a new mission called 1001 Worshiping Communities, inviting people to think creatively about the ways they gather to worship, learn, and care for one another and serve God's creation. In the past few years, the Presbyterian Church has supported a running ministry called "Sweaty Sheep," as well as coffee house worship communities, whole food tables where nutritious food is served and people pay what they can, as well as the more traditional Sunday morning gatherings in church buildings. Prayer is always at the heart of all these ministries, and the prophet Micah's reminder that we are "to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God."
I'm excited by these new directions and eager to see how these newly forming worship communities will share the good news of the gospel which invites us to see God at work lifting up the lowly and caring for the least among us. But such a movement away from church buildings has also given me pause. I'm the pastor of a church whose sanctuary is filled to capacity most Sunday mornings, with young people and older ones, from nearly every state, and from Scotland and from Ghana and Brazil, Malawi and Japan, scholars and engineers, building managers and teachers.
We worship in a sanctuary designed 40 years ago by church members, then gather in a community hall built eight years ago so that we could expand our ministries. Our buildings provide a place for children to learn music, yoga to be practiced, and community choirs to sing, and meet a wide range of other needs. We are grateful for our church buildings, and pleased that so many people from all walks of life and all faith traditions find a place of welcome there. Our congregation recently hosted a program sponsored by the Columbus House called Abraham's Tent. Over 24 congregations in the New Haven area open their buildings and welcome men to stay for a week, to make their home among us. They are fed well, given a warm place to sleep, awake to a hot breakfast, and the makings of a bag lunch. In addition, the men are welcomed by volunteers who invite conversation about all sorts of things, from football to the weather to the struggles of life. Children run about, a TV blares the news, prayers are offered. Looking about, it would have been difficult to tell who was part of the Columbus House program and who was part of First Presbyterian Church.
This week of welcoming our guests made me realize how grateful I am that faith communities still have buildings in which to provide a place for good food and a good night's rest.
If faith communities no longer had buildings, how would such life-changing programs like Abraham's Tent and all of the other community events that need open and welcoming space gather? This is indeed a matter for faith. I pray that we will continue to seek new ways of witnessing to God's mercy and grace even as we continue to support the congregations who so bravely witness to God's transforming love.
The Rev. Maria LaSala is co-pastor, First Presbyterian Church of New Haven. Email email@example.com.