One of the things I like to do when I am travelling is to visit church buildings – not just the big fancy Cathedrals, but also small town churches and when in Norway, every Stave church I travel near.
I remember visiting Lincoln Cathedral and what struck me and pleased me was the rickety “white board” near the majestic front doors providing information on all the activities that day. In neat handwriting the church was saying, in effect, we are a part of the community and the community meets, worships, plays and prays here. I have visited other cathedrals and the first thing one notices is the entry fee. This is ‘cathedral’, not as community but rather as tourist attraction. I readily acknowledge these buildings cost a fortune to maintain, but first impressions are quite telling.
In some country towns, in Europe and Australia, the small church has a notice board indicating how frequently, or usually, how infrequently a service is held. This too says much about faith in a community. Again, before I am chastised, I must acknowledge home churches and those who meet in places other than church buildings.
As I travel around I notice the condition of the building and the grounds, and the graves around the church. Each one speaks silently about their place and importance in the community.
Recently I sat in the balcony of a church in Spain. It was the evening before Maundy Thursday and the church was full. But from my vantage point I noticed that the vast majority of the heads were grey or bald. Later as we left I observed that the younger people were in the Bars and Bistros.
Often my first reaction to the more obvious signs of the decline of the church is despair. Not a helpful emotion! So now, rather than despair, when I visit church buildings I pray. I pray for the leaders of the church, the congregation and the community in which it sits. I pray that God will continue to raise faithful believers holding on to the truth of Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Every so often I come across a church building that shows that it is lived in by young and old. The Bibles and newsletters left in the pews, the children’s pictures placed on the walls, the programme of activities on the notice board, the pictures of missionaries smiling in far off places and the wear and tear of the furniture and carpets, all attest that this is a “faith home”. This is a place where the people of God gather to celebrate, rejoice and weep. I still pray, but it is a prayer of thanksgiving.