Thinking Out Loud

February 4, 2010

New (Old) Uses for Church Buildings

Filed under: Church — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 4:55 pm

From USAToday Religion

Imagine moving an entire church building 900 miles from Buffalo, NY to Atlanta, GA.  That’s exactly the fate that could wait for St. Gerard’s, one of 22 churches for sale in the greater Buffalo area.  USAToday’s Rick Hampson reports:   “Meanwhile, in Georgia another church was at the other end of the congregational life cycle.  Father David Dye, the pastor wanted ‘a church that looks like a church, a real house of God,’ not a sterile ‘meeting house.’  He commissioned architectural plans for such a church and began calling dioceses in the Northeast, looking for an altar.  When he called Boston — which had closed 44 parishes — he was offered an entire church.   Although the Boston Church turned out to be unavailable, Dye kept looking until he saw St. Gerard’s.  When he saw the photos he was startled:  The church looked just liked the one he’d commissioned.” Continue reading the whole story at USAToday Religion.   Also check out the project website Moved By Grace.

November 30, 2009

Switzerland Votes to Prohibit Minarets

I never knew when I wrote my original post on this subject on September 18th, that when the vote took place two months later, it would generate so many new visits here.

According to traffic on this blog on the days leading up to and after the Swiss voted on the weekend to prohibit Muslim mosques from constructing minarets (the spire shaped towers) that are used to call the faithful to prayer, this is an issue for which there is intense interest, most probably because it  has a bearing on religious freedom not only in Switzerland, but also where you live, and around the world.

To see a short 2-minute report on the issue as it made news in Canada, you can watch this one at CBC News.  Although the post is quite sweeping in its coverage of the vote, the title — not fully explored — is intriguing, “Could a Minaret Ban Happen Here:  An Examination of What Might Happen if Canadian Tolerance Weakens.”   Did Swiss tolerance weaken?  Or was it never truly there in the first place?

Here’s a commentary at Beliefnet that also summarizes what happened if you’re coming to this for the first time:

All Muslims are Taliban, Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism, and Shari’a is the new Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That’s the operational reality that Muslims in Europe must acknowledge, in the wake of a referendum to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland:


In a vote that displayed a widespread anxiety about Islam and undermined the country’s reputation for religious tolerance, the Swiss on Sunday overwhelmingly imposed a national ban on the construction of minarets, the prayer towers of mosques, in a referendum drawn up by the far right and opposed by the government.

The referendum, which passed with a clear majority of 57.5 percent of the voters and in 22 of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, was a victory for the right. The vote against was 42.5 percent. Because the ban gained a majority of votes and passed in a majority of the cantons, it will be added to the Constitution.

The Swiss Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the rightist Swiss People’s Party, or S.V.P., and a small religious party had proposed inserting a single sentence banning the construction of minarets, leading to the referendum.

Civil Libertarians were quick to decry the results.  Even The Vatican condemned the loss of freedom of religion.   One political writer and talk-radio host suggested that the vote will have both a cause and effect influence on Switzerland’s future immigration dynamics.   Another writer suggests that the vote now introduces a whole new set of problems.

The Muslim blog, Islam in Europe, notes reactions from several different countries.    A gay Canadian blogger suggests that Islamophobic and Homophobic groups share a common strategy.

As you can see, there is no end of coverage on this over the last few hours.   So I contacted our anonymous correspondent in Switzerland from the September blog post for a grassroots reaction, which gets the last word:

It seems that the result of the referendum came as a surprise to everyone.  I think even people that voted in support of the ban were surprised that it went through.

The media here has gone crazy of course, saying it shows that the Swiss are afraid of Muslims, that the vote was decided by fear.  I personally don’t think that’s true.  It’s not like the Swiss are going to tear down the minarets that are already built, mosques have not been forbidden and the Muslims are not being expelled from the country.  They have the right to meet, to practice their religion and to have their mosques.  It’s been said in the media that a lot of them meet in old warehouses or industrial buildings, but so do most evangelical Christians.  (The only Protestant churches here are state owned and run.)  And it’s not like Christians are allowed to go into a Muslim country to build a cathedral.  I feel like that’s more the point.  It’s not a vote of fear, but of fairness.  If people want to move to another country and integrate into that country, there needs to be a bit of give and take.  Like I said before, they are still allowed to practice Islam, still allowed to build mosques.  Religion is not a building.  A church is more than four walls and a spire with a cross on the top.  It’s not a vote banning Islam, it’s a vote banning towers.

The other interesting thing is that, in our canton (province) only 52% of eligible voters actually voted.  It would be interesting to know what everyone else thinks…

And in the wake of all this, people are not talking about the fact that the Swiss also voted to keep exporting arms to other countries.  Why is everyone so concerned that we can’t build a tower, and not concerned about people killing each other with Swiss army material?  Sometimes I wonder about the media’s priorities…

September 18, 2009

You Knew We Were a Christian Country, So Why Did You Move Here?

There was something in the USAToday story I wasn’t fully grasping:

By Stephen Brown, Religion News Service
Minaret and crossGENEVA — The Swiss Council of Religions, which includes Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders, has issued a statement rejecting a call for a nationwide ban on the construction of minarets at mosques. Some Swiss groups want to ban minarets out of fear of Europe’s growing Muslim population.

“For the members of a religious community, religious buildings are not only places to gather but also a symbol of their faith and an expression of their reverence for God. For many Muslims, therefore, mosques need to have minarets,” the council said in a 5-page statement issued Wednesday.

“The prohibition of minarets would injure these people in their dignity and their basic right to practice their religion,” the council warned.

The move to ban the construction of minarets was submitted in July 2008 with just under 115,000 signatures, and will be decided in a national referendum on Nov. 29.

If passed, the measure would amend the country’s Federal Constitution to include a new article stating that, “The construction of minarets is prohibited.”

…”Everyone has the right in this country to live their faith visibly, freely and in a community within the framework of the public order,” it [the Council of Religions] stated. “This also includes the construction of places of worship that are typical for their respective religions.”

~~read the entire article, with reader comments, here.

So I e-mailed someone who lives there, who I’ll let remain anonymous.   This provides more backstory, the section in italics (added) really holds the key:

minaretRight now it’s not illegal to build a minaret. However, like trying to build anything in Switzerland, there’s a TON of red tape!  There are already 4 or 5. However there is one political party that collected over 100,000 signatures against building them, enough to send it to a referendum.

Their argument is that minarets are not mentioned at all in the Koran, and that they are more a political symbol of conquest than they are of religious freedom. They also question why these people have fled places where they are not allowed to practice their religion, so why didn’t they go somewhere that is mostly Muslim, instead of coming to Switzerland? In Switzerland there are only two recognized religions, Christianity (Protestant and Catholic) and Jewish, other religions have the freedom to practice and the meet, but they are not recognized by the state.

They are also concerned about Muslims asking for changes in other areas, like what is taught at school. Bible reading used to be normal in Swiss schools, since it is considered a Christian country, but the Muslims are fighting it, and now it has all but disappeared. I guess the idea is, they chose to be here knowing it was predominantly Protestant (the church is state run), it’s not fair that they want to change it now to suit them. I’m not saying I agree with all of that, but that’s the stance of the party that is fighting against the building of the minarets.

Not to mention that a sunrise call to worship would never get past the noise laws here; or the architectural laws for that matter…they are REALLY picky about the style you build here…we were afraid they wouldn’t accept the siding on our house!

So what happens when people of faith groups which are foreign to a particular piece of geography decide to move there?   Do they do so with the express intention of changing the religious climate there?   Increasing tolerance?   Warming the local population up to greater cultural and political influence and involvement?

Obviously the question that forms the title of this post is moot in some respects.   It’s possible that some people of other faith groups move into areas specifically because they are dominated by Christians.

But that brings us to something else altogether:

How is this different from the Christian Missionary movement?   Do we not also go into countries which are dominated by other faiths to proclaim the message of Christianity?   Do we not erect places of worship in those countries with our symbol (the cross) clearly visible on the exterior of these buildings?   Do we not seek to build bridges into the larger community so that these people have a day-to-day, living, breathing experience of what Christ-followers look like?

We tend to see this issue from our Christian point of view, forgetting that whatever freedoms apply to us have to apply to all.   But obviously here there is another factor at work, to which I added italics in the second quotation — “they are more a political symbol of conquest than they are of religious freedom.” One campaign initiator (watch the video link below) believes the desire to build minarets is a desire to “change the social order.”

But who decides this?

And does a referendum somewhat defeat the purpose?   Will voters grasp the larger issues or will they simply maintain the status quo?

You can almost feel the tension here on the other side of the Atlantic.


Upper:  This is the picture that accompanied the USAToday story, juxtaposing the minaret with a Protestant church steeple.   From this angle, neither seems much different than the other.
Lower:  This picture shows minarets towering over a local skyline.   Are voters picturing the upper picture or the lower one?

Learn more:

Our contact in Switzerland recommended this website, where we found this video story.

December 5, 2008

Truly Different Kinds of Churches

Filed under: Christianity, Church, Religion — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:24 pm

Check out this photo essay featuring 20 of the world’s most unusual churches, architecturally speaking.   (You might enjoy some of the other collections at this site, Village of Joy.)  The indication is that this is part one with more to follow.   Thanks to Trevin Wax for pointing this out.    Of course, today, the phrase “unusual church” usually refers to things other than building design.   Don’t believe me?   Try a Google search for the phrase, “a different kind of church.” Anyway, back to the photo collection, here’s a sample pic to give you the idea:


November 8, 2008

How Environment Affects Worship

Filed under: Christianity, Church — Tags: , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:27 pm

I promised earlier this week I’d get back to the subject of how environment almost dictates the way a worship service will go.   I’m keeping that promise to some degree, but instead of formulating a thesis — like, oh, I dunno know, how about “Environment Affects Worship” — I thought instead I would give you some idea why this has been on my mind lately.

  • First of all, some friends of ours recently decided to start holding services in a nearby high school.   No, they are not a church plant, neither are they in a building program.   They just want to reach more people.
  • In only the first week, they attracted some new people.   Were those people planning a visit anyway?   It’s possible that they viewed the school as less threatening; maybe it’s a building they were familiar with; maybe they felt they could get lost in the crowd in the larger venue.  Maybe it had more parking.
  • Andy Stanley always talks about “creating environments” for people to experience God.   Sure, it’s a Northpoint buzz phrase, but you don’t have to attend Andy’s Atlanta church to know that there’s more to people connecting with God than just preaching the right words.
  • A few years ago, we visited a church in Peterborough, Ontario; Kawartha Community Church.   They meet in a community college and are divided into several “gatherings” in various lecture theaters.  We’ve actually been about six times, and have attended each gathering at least once.   But on this one particular Sunday, I entered the lecture theater (or as we spell it here, theatre) and took off my jacket, and before I touched down on the seat, turned to Mrs. W. and said, “You know, I feel perfectly at home here.”   And I was.   Didn’t feel like a visitor at all.   Never do there.   Except that I don’t know anybody.   But besides that…
  • A few years prior to that, we visited our pastor friend, David Fowler, at Clarington Community Church, which meets in an elementary school in Courtice, Ontario.   On this one particular visit, there was a guy sitting by himself at the table next to us, who was very obviously new.  (They meet sitting around tables; it’s so much part of their church culture that it will carry over into their own building someday.)   We invited him to join us, and when it came time for the discussion in the middle, invited him to share his thoughts.  (They break down into a small group vibe in the middle of the sermon for about 2-3 minutes.)   The deal is, WE were visiting also.  It was only the first or second time we’d been there since they’d moved to this new location.   But I felt so at home, I had no issues playing “host” to this visitor.
  • The Third Space has a long term lease on the gym of a mainline Protestant church which also meets at a similar time on Sunday morning.   Probably many in each congregation are oblivious to the other.   Again, people sit around tables.   There’s no singing at this one, they might watch a video and then get right into a teaching time, with a dash of prayer.    It attracts a mix of people in their teens, twenties and early thirties.   (I was among the oldest there.)    Again, it’s a relaxing, non-threatening environment.   And even as a worship leader, there are times and places where the no-music thing suits me just fine.   It wouldn’t work with this demographic anyway, unless the music guy was gifted in the art of persuasion.
  • The Meeting House is the fastest growing church movement in Canada.   Except for the main “production center,” each location meets in a theater and all seven locations are interconnected by satellite.   Coffee drinkers love the cup holders.   Nearsighted people get to see their pastor, Bruxy Cavey, larger than life.   And as these are multiplex theaters, elementary and high school kids get their own theater presentation of the weekly lesson.   If your friends won’t go to a church that meets in a school, do they have any objections to a theater?
  • Last summer we visited Rob Bell’s church, Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, MI.   The church is a former shopping mall, with the “sanctuary” being what would be called the “anchor tenant” in the mall; a room about the size of a Target store.   Each of the former smaller stores is a Sunday school room for a different age group.   For adults, there are steel folding chairs facing a stage in the middle of a layout that resembles a boxing match at Madison Square Gardens.   What my son calls a “Powerpoint Cube” reaches out with smallish screens in four directions.   In some ways, this particular environment is somewhat lacking, especially as one’s posterior grows numb on the steel chairs.   But again, it’s part of the charm.   Though putting the name of the church on a sign might help.   Maybe they just wanna keep it humble.
  • This summer we visited The Bridge in Bancroft, Ontario.   This is a storefront church, located in a strip mall on the outskirts of the town.   The room is arranged in such a way that the focal point is the one of the back corners, with the seating fanning out around.   The church membership is an equal mix of former Pentecostals, former Brethren, and people new to faith.   Again, the unusual location sets the tone for an informal service.   Increasingly, the storefront concept is being utilized more across North America.
  • Each summer in July, we pay a visit to Next, a church in Kingston, Ontario.   Next is an inner-city, highly neighborhood-connected church which meets in a very old, very small church building.   If people tell you that old church buildings are a liability, they haven’t been to Next.   People come and go during the service, refilling coffee; taking kids out and bringing kids back in.   Many arrive late.    There are pews, but entire rows are missing in places so people with kids can have their kids play on the carpet in front of them.   One missing row of pews is replaced by a couch, I think.   Most of the people there don’t know who we are, and the interactions are somewhat sparse, but we never feel out of place.   This is like a house church, only it’s a big, big house.
  • Because many of the people at Next don’t drive cars, their daughter church, Rustle, is only about eight to ten blocks away.   We tried that this summer.  We were really, really late for the service and missed pretty well the entire worship time.   We walked in and found a seat in the third row.   Anywhere else, this would have been a rather embarrassing process.   Not at Rustle.   A former ethnic community center that was probably also once a church, Rustle’s home is completely disarming.   Anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in that environment must have a problem.

All these environments work to produce an experience quite unlike what you might get in a traditional church building.   I’m not saying those places are history, but just like “it takes all kinds of churches to reach all kinds of people;” I think it also takes all kinds of church environments.

To see what it is you DON’T want to do, I’d encourage you to watch this video, at YouTube.   So how are things where you live?   Are there certain environments that are more inviting?  More disarming?   More likely to attract certain people?

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