Another pastor came to our church about a month ago for a meeting. He was early, and asked if he could walk the halls and explore our building. When he came back, he said, "I bet I can guess the age of every one of your Adult Sunday School classes."
I was intrigued. "Let's hear it" I offered.
"This class over here" he pointed to a large room with lots of chairs facing one direction and a podium at the front, "this is your oldest Sunday School class."
"These rooms" three classes with chairs and tables fashioned together "are your people in their 40s though 65. Working professionals, they usually like to debate and discuss."
"That big room upstairs with all the comfy couches and nice chairs, that's your baby-boomer's class isn't it?
Then he talked about two rooms where there were only chairs sitting around in a circle. "Those are your youngest classes, right?"
Right. He also noticed how one of those rooms shared a wall with the nursery which was another dead giveaway.
I've been thinking about his comments for three weeks straight, trying to figure why the furniture is so predicable of our church culture and what it all means.
Our church is also considering updating our worship space. Built in the 1920s, Augsburg’s Sanctuary has a great harmony of earth tones and divine elements. The outside of the building is carefully masoned stone on stone, reminds us both of the fragility of the individual and the strength of the community, with Christ as our cornerstone. The interior is also earthy- with intersecting hardwood beams that conjure God’s promise of shelter to the ancient Israelites. The space also has an ethereal aesthetic with prominent stained-glass windows and the melody of a baroque style pipe organ.
The sanctuary needs some work from leaks and cracks and old carpet. So we thought this would be a great time to invest in the future of the church.
You might not be surprised that there were many reactions to the idea of changing God's building that were deeply personal. One person spoke of being baptized, confirmed, and married there, and every time she sees this church exactly the way it is and has been, she is reminded of that. Another spoke of the cost of changes as unnecessary; sort of a "if it's broke, fix it; if it isn't broke, don't fix it" approach. This seems to be a popular opinion. Whether or not this is what the church ultimately decides to do, as a pastor I am compelled to ask that we consider the future parishioners into our worship space, including those who have been baptized in our midst but do not yet have a voice or vote.
Back to our visiting pastor's guessing-game. When the sanctuary was built, 85 years ago, the pastor was considered an expert. There were three great professions dating back to the origination of this country: Lawyer, Doctor, Priest. All three were educated, all three were pillars in the community, and all three were experts whose voices ought to be listened to as someone who knows better. Everyone faced forward because there was one expert to listen to. As my pastor friend pointed out, our oldest Sunday school class still follows this model, only now they rotate who the expert is from week to week. (They even invited me in to be the expert for a month back in 2012.)
Think for a moment about the power structures at play within this architecture in a sanctuary. We all pray in one direction, where the pastor is closest to the altar, and therefore closest to God. As if the prayer took on special significance to God's ears if spoken by the pastor rather than a parishioner.
Fast forward almost a century and imagine the world we live in. A pastor is almost never the most educated person in any room (not even at home!). We are the ones who have taken vows to live a life of Christ, but the thing I say the most is not, "listen and take notes" but "this is the body of Christ, given for you."
Not just on Sundays, but the world is changing all over. The world is moving away from the one-expert model more and more each day. When I go to the doctor I tell him what my blood pressure has been measuring, the research I've done on medicines, and the way my wife (who is a dietitian) has been suggesting I eat. Like more and more Americans, I do my own taxes, I'm learning a foreign language from my phone so that others don't have to translate for me, and my toothbrush is so advanced my dentist says I'm cleaning as well as he can.
You see where I am going with this. In many great ways, the age of experts is diminishing. No I haven't given up on my doctor, dentist, tax professionals or teachers; and I like being your pastor, but I'm sure I field more questions on the use of biblical Greek and my dentists sees better teeth than our counterparts did 50 years ago.
If we use the progression of Sunday school spaces as a model for the future, we can plainly see that more and more we study God in the round.
The youngest groups that meet for Sunday school don't have much in the way of furniture because circling up gives us community to imagine God collectively in and to continue to evolve in our faith together.
Also consider this: despite serving as pastor of the congregation for nearly three years, outside of the youngest Sunday School class, I have not been asked my thoughts on sanctuary renovations one time. Not by a single parishioner. You might think this is because mine isn't a valued opinion (which is what I thought at first). I have come to realize that it is much more because we've been trying to answer the question, "What do we want the future sanctuary to look like?" This question, properly framed, doesn't include the opinion of the youngish newish pastor. It doesn't include the opinion of anyone other than ourselves.
This question is not a good one for the future of the church. This question is the one that makes the church to lose its luster, its power and its potency.
Church culture is changing all around us. Augsburg has avoided many of the pitfalls of less fortunate congregations in decline. In order to not follow in their footsteps, it would be prudent of us to find the right question to ask.
When I think of giving my children a gift, I do not first ask, “what do I want?” and work from there.
But better to ask the question, "In the future church, who do we hope will worship God in this sanctuary? How might they want to worship?
The answer may be around the altar, not facing forward.
I’ve attached some pictures from my dear friend, Bishop Gordy of Southeastern Synod of a healthy church that recently underwent this change.