The Preacher and I sometimes fill a long-vacant pulpit in a nearby city church that just celebrated its 100th year.
The steeple over the red brick structure still punctures the sky, though the bell tower is empty and inside, the antique pews more than half so. Yet like the oil that keeps those pews glowing, memories of better times; of former friends and members, have seeped into the grain of the place, hallowing its atmosphere. To those who know and love it best, the church is a sacred space.
They’re a tight group, the bunch that gathers there. Faithful. Stalwart. Solid. The years have lowered their count and raised their age. Children no longer scamper through the lower floor Sunday School rooms, and no potlucks liven the church hall.
Predicting outcome by trajectory, the day will arrive when the church’s ornate double doors won’t swing open in greeting. When no more worshippers will mount the concrete stairs, step into the postage stamp foyer and enter the coolness of the sanctuary. None will gaze up, up, up and in, in, in, wondering what God will speak in that place.
The red-bricked church is not alone. Across America, attendance at most Christian churches has withered. People can’t find enough reason to meet weekly with others who worship the God of the Bible — or so it seems.
Christ-followers have made well-intentioned though grave errors on the path of sharing our Lord with our world. In hope of gaining wider acceptance, we have diluted gospel truth, and concentrated on curb appeal. That pattern has repeated itself often — to our peril.
In the last century, when Communists took over Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, sorely compromised by years of pandering to the whims of Russian politics, had no strength left to stand for truth — and no idea how.
But one custom it would not surrender to the tyrannical Communist army: the ringing of the bells before Eucharistic services. Each chime reminded hearers that God was still redeemer and judge. That he was still active in creation, though his church was not. That Jesus was still Lord — and the Communists were not.
The Communists outlawed the bells. The priests insisted on ringing them, insisted the Church had a God-given right to be the church. By the thousands, the Communists slaughtered and jailed those priests. But by the defiant tolling of the bells, they kept the church from becoming invisible and inaudible.
Last weekend, the little church re-hung their bell. No longer part of the building, it rests in a stand near the ground, closer to eye level. There it reminds passers-by that God is still active — and his church is still his church.
The Preacher and I have observed something in our recent years of supplying vacant pulpits. Outside the walls of their churches, countless passionate Christ-followers are remembering how to stand. They’re ringing bells too — with their lives. Down low where all can see and hear.
The church has left the building — as Christ intended.