I feel so cliche coming home from a visit to Germany with scores of pictures of the magnificent kirches, churches, at the center of every hamlet and city across Deutschland.
I was one of the thousands of visitors from around the world each day (except, curiously, during Sunday morning worship services!) who stared, pointed and wandered through the mazes of chapels and religious trappings, many of which I didn’t fully understand, while constantly pinching my digital camera.
It was the classic busman’s holiday. I’m an admitted church junkie–a Christian nerd. But I dig these ancient edifices and their stories. I drink in the sensation of standing where serfs and saints stood to address their lives to something Greater and Truer because this same mystery courses through my veins too.
I know these magnificent European churches were often built from less-than-eternal motives. Churches were ways to show off wealth for individuals and cities. It “made a statement,” so to speak. Medieval churches also treated religion as a good luck charm. Please God so that God will please you.
And I know that there are far more Germans today who completely ignore church than attend. And yes, I have plenty of perfect Sunday school attendance pins so that I know the old adage: the church is not a building.
But somewhere in these structures is a core of faith. The efforts in the flying buttress splendor of soaring cathedrals was an attempt to emulate the grandeur of a Reality beyond everyday reality, a Truth more profound than the practical, self-justifying truths we tend to live by.
The statues and gravestones still tell the story of a time when the world acknowledged Something that connected and revolutionized their lives.
And the buildings themselves say graphically: it ain’t all about us, our logic, our technology, our self-absorption. There is More.
The More isn’t simply about houses of worship and weekly rituals, as much as I encourage such practices. Church is a community of sinners being drawn out of self-absorption and into a new Way, where the Creator is seen as the heart of Love.
Church brings us together, not just in locale but also in purpose. Touched by Love, we are called to love. Loving is more than a tool of manipulation. Loving is now what we do.
But it’s hard. We’re self-centered. We fall back into our old ways. So we need each other along with tried-and-true ritual to kick our butts and call us to the crazy, countercultural way of Jesus. Thus the church, the community, the rituals and the physical space of church because we’re human and tactile and do better through hands-on learning than we do with up-in-our-heads education.
Ken Burns’ new documentary on World War II caused him to reflect on the difference between those days and today. “We aren’t asked to give up anything. We’re all narcissistic free agents. Surfing the internet alone. Watching TV alone. Driving alone. There’s too much Pluribus and not enough Unum.”
We don’t need a war to call forth the unum from us. This is exactly what these ancient kirches and the stories and the communities they represent have been saying for hundreds of years.
Joseph Phelps is the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.