Preferring Bats in the Belfry

Here's a follow-up post to yesterday's pandering for someone to buy Echo a school building.

When I was a child, our church met in an old building on the corner of Price and Grand Avenue in Price Hill. The Westminster Presbyterian Church sold the building to Cincinnati Bible Seminary [now Cincinnati Christian University] in the 1940's for use as a chapel. This purchase allowed for a new church to be started in it: the Price Avenue Church of Christ. Once the college built their own multi-purpose facility, they gifted the building to the church. Unfortunately, the building was not properly maintained and the church couldn't afford the upkeep on the facility, so it was razed. Here's a picture I found online from the Cincinnati Public Library:

I loved that old building. We [the people of the church] actually tore it down by hand; our family spent every Friday night there for years doing demolition. I believe it was finally leveled in 1988, nearly 100 years after it was constructed. That was, for me, the end of an era in worship.

After the uniqueness of that century old building, the rest of my church-going was unspectacular. The rest of my church attendance throughout my childhood took place in a bland annex building constructed on the plot east of the old building. While in college, the chapel services I'd occasionally attend occurred in a gymnasium. My first ministry was at a church whose building resembled a UFO [use Google Street View for full effect]. Our next church was a boring 1970's sanctuary originally built for Jehovah's Witnesses. And the inside of my last church's building could easily be mistaken for a convention center. All these buildings were functional, but far from impressive.

Hence, my current love for the building Echo rents— pictured above, it's over 80 years old, filled with beautiful woodwork and stained-glass. Overall, it has a certain character that I hadn't enjoyed since my youth attending church in Price Hill. I used to think my affinity towards the building was only about my personal taste, but it might more indicative of the trend in our country.

A recent Southern Baptist survey discovered that people who don't go to church prefer older, "churchy" buildings to more contemporary looking ones. To be fair, this wasn't an exact survey, as it asked opinions about aesthetics. Regardless of the legitimacy of this sampling, I do think the message to be true. And I think it has something to say about Americans' conceptions of church.

First, these older sanctuaries immediately convey a link to the past; it gives people a sense that this faith has roots. I'd propose that people of "my generation" are not quite as enamored with the newness concept in architecture as previous ones were. Sure, you might have a bookstore and a coffee bar, but can the new structure offer history?

Along those same lines, I'd say that older church buildings, especially those that pre-date World War 2, are a unique experience for Americans. This isn't Europe where ancient cathedrals abound. Walking into an older church building separates the worshipper from our fast-paced society. These buildings were built before air-conditioning, before television. Heck, the church we rent has fewer bathrooms than some houses. It's not normal, and sometimes a departure from normalcy helps us clear our minds.

One of the benefits of doing ministry in the city is access to these old churches. Fortunately, it seems that more people actually prefer them. We're just trying to take advantage of it.