Physical Churches: Do They Matter Anymore?


Micah Bales asked a deep question. He suggests that the wealth in property we’ve inherited is hindering our work for social justice. He talks provocatively (as a spiritual challenge, he clarifies) about “burning the meetinghouse.” He asks, “What would happen if we put the movement of the Spirit ahead of property management?"

Burned ChurchAs I passed churches the other day I asked myself, "If there are so many churches in America, why does America look so unlike the Kingdom of God? Why are we strangers to our neighbors? Why do we have homeless poor among us? Why do sweatshops produce the majority of our goods? Why do we have the greatest per-capita incarceration rate in the world? Why are we choking the earth with fossil fuels?"

Many non-Christians lay the sins of our nation and even the world at the feet of the church. After all, a 77% of us self-identify as Christians (in 2009). So why is it that the Christian faith, the self-avowed enemy of greed, has allowed this world to happen?

Render Unto Caesar

I think that our churches have been slowly converted by the logic of the market, a logic which Paul called "the world." Jesus called his disciples to disregard the economy, and later, in the midst of the Roman empire, the Acts church built centers of economic and spiritual wholeness that offered a concrete alternative to the mandatory emperor-worshipping cult which was physically represented by Caesar's head on the golden coin: the money system. There was a prophetic imagination alive in the Acts church.

Churches have great power to build alternative communities that embody another way of thinking, one that is rooted in love and relationships. As Bill McKibben puts it, "Among the institutions of our society, only the communities of faith can still posit some reason for human existence other than the constant accumulation of stuff." But these communities have been eroded by forces that are far bigger than us. Have we lost our rooting?

In fact, many American churches have accepted much of the logic of industrial capitalism even while our faith calls us into love. Our economic system treats people and places like things, as interchangeable, and ultimately, disposable. Has this cancerous logic entered our own thinking in some ways? Who do we consider important and who do we consider riff-raff?

As I drove, I thought about the fact that the very physical locations of churches testify to a different past. Churches are distributed through every conceivable neighborhood, reminders of a time when community churches were places people broke bread together, shared economic hardship, and expressed faith together. Almost all of our old churches have kitchens, and there's a reason for that. Kitchens create the food for the table, and the table is where the church gathers to break bread.

Today, locations are no longer supposed to matter. We live in a telecommuting, globalized world, where specialized jobs ask us to move from the communities of our birth. We don't hesitate: cell phones, Skype, and Facebook help us maintain an illusion of community from remote. We keep up with friends halfway across the country better than we do with our neighbors. I myself have put down deep roots in four communities: Indianapolis, Bloomington, Chicago, and Washington DC. I feel like I have scars on my heart from each transplant.

But the real problem of distance is that we can do very little to help our friends and family so far away. We cannot bring them medicine when they're sick, share meals and community each evening, babysit their children, or take them into our homes when they are evicted. These acts of mercy are the practical mechanics of the Gospel. You can't build the Kingdom of God's economy from remote.

Our churches with their empty kitchens look like shells now. Or maybe they look like kindling, as my brother and friend Micah points out. They look like pieces of firewood, and it's a cold night where we could use a fire.

Have we stood aside while we gutted the earth for her fossil fuels and outsourced industrial slavery to developing nations?

A new generation rises up to ask, "Why?" Millenials instinctively understand the urgency of our historical moment. But yet, my generation understands least of all the importance of places. And why would we? Our schools and jobs don't teach us this.

We see the unused kitchens in our churches and we wonder what purpose they ever served.

Hearth Fire

Let’s not burn our churches. Let’s light the hearth-fires of hospitality and invite strangers in to warm themselves.

But what else in this world that can stand against the tides of history and technology other than the church? Many Anabaptists certainly have held their ground, and many churches have kept pockets of our prophetic economic imagination alive with holy cooperatives, homeless shelters, mutual aid, jobs ministries, and gleaning networks.

Let's show my generation why places matter. People like The Simple Way offer me hope that we can root our communities in sustainable practices that can reduce global demand for industrial slave labor. Local grassroots organizers like Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light are greening churches and building a movement to confront climate change. WWF’s Sacred Earth project is helping green Tibetan monasteries (6,000 of them!). Interfaith Worker Justice is organizing faith-labor partnerships, and Sojourners and Wild Goose are inquiring about justice nationally, By Their Strange Fruit is asking hard questions about now we treat our neighbors: racism in the church, Give Us Names is working on displacement in Colombia, and Occupy Our Homes is asking why government-funded banks displace people from their homes without negotiation or warning instead of offering them opportunities to refinance

Personally, I founded the Quixote Center's Crabgrass Christians Initiative, building a network of churches which will buy food directly from local farmers, using the Eucharist as a lens to re-think food and community. Our program seeks to re-kindle the kitchen fires in our churches, and create strong, healthy communities that can nourish us through this recession.

Who’s doing work for social justice and environmental sustainability in your area? Can your church partner with them?

I could lift up more people and organizations, but you get the idea. All these projects are pieces of the solution to this mess. If we each begin a piece of Gospel labor that is nearest to us, and remain faithful, we’ll see fruit in ten years. I pray that it will not be too late.


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About the Author

Hi. My name is Jeremiah John. I'm a sf/f writer and activist.

I just completed a dystopian science fiction novel. I run a website which I created that connects farms with churches, mosques, and synagogues to buy fresh vegetables directly and distribute them on a sliding scale to those in need.

In 2003, I spent six months in prison for civil disobedience while working to close the School of the Americas, converting to Christianity, as one does, while I was in the clink.