Wednesday, July 20, 2011

There once was a church...

We were traveling last weekend and stopped for the night at a hotel. Not knowing the area, we asked the desk staff where to find something to eat and were directed to a restaurant nearby. After checking out their website (doesn't everyone?) to see their menu, we went over there and had a very good meal.

It was one of those funky themed restaurants that caters to the young and hip. There was a bar in the center of the restaurant with tables and booths around the perimeter. It was a Friday night and the place was filling up fast, so we were seated upstairs, where from our booth we could look down at the bar and the decor. The restaurant theme was a woman aviator (aviatrix?) from the 1930s era: goggles and scarf and leather jacket. A plane of that time period (don't ask me what kind) was suspended from the ceiling and hung over the bar at a crazy angle, with the daring woman aviator seated in the cockpit.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. The summer menu featured lobster and it was quite good. We were more interested in the food than the decor. But sometime around the time my stomach was more full than the plate, I happened to focus on the rows of booths around us and noticed...they were pews. Real church pews. Oak, with the trinitarian three-lobed carvings on the ends. The numbered brass plates were still on the sides. Over toward the bar I saw a carved railing, mahogany, with the same three-lobed design: an altar rail, perhaps?

I took a closer look at the pew I was sitting in. Yes, it was the real thing, with old deep scratches in the wood. When the waiter came with the check, I asked him about the pews. Not surprisingly, he had no idea where they came from. The restaurant was quite busy by now, so I didn't bother trying to find the manager to ask for more information. But on the way out I noticed a round stained glass window on one wall. It had an inscription that it had been given in memory of someone. So it was real, too.

The aviatrix and the plane were fun, funky stuff. But why the salvaged pews, altar rail, and stained glass from a church? I hope some decorator didn't think that was old funky stuff too, that fit in with the decor because it was part of that era.

I thought of the people who had sat in those pews and prayed. Generations, probably. They had worshiped in those seats, sung hymns, sat through sermons (good and bad). They had attended weddings, baptisms, funerals in those pews. I wondered where the church had been and when it had closed, and how many people had been left at the end. (The possibility that it might have been torn down to build a bigger sanctuary, particularly in the Northeast, is slim to none.)

I suppose I can be a little bit glad that some parts of that sanctuary (and by extension, the people who worshiped there) have a new life, a new home, even in a restaurant. It is sad that it's hard to find someone who remembers who they were and what they did.

Will this new generation of young people remember going to church as a quaint old custom that their grandparents found important? Or will they have their own ways of worship? Plush theater seats in stadium-like auditoriums seating thousands? Alone at home (or in a coffee shop, an airport, anywhere) with a laptop/tablet/smartphone and an online "virtual church"?

I do think there will be a church in the future. But it may not be anything I recognize.

There is a huge discussion going on among mainline church leaders about the future of the church: whether there will be a future at all, and if so, what it will be like. But that subject would make a longer blog than I have time to write today. That would be a book. Or a series of books.

Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.