“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe” (Proverbs 18:10). Written when our church tower was needing urgent (and expensive) repairs.
Architects tell us our tower needs repair
Sandstone erodes, grout crumbles, timbers wear
Time takes its toll on brickwork and mortar
Rafters and beams suffer ingress of water.
Once our tower was weatherproof, undecayed;
Now it needs restoration, its structure made
Good once more to withstand the salt-wind’s scour.
The name of the Lord is a strong tower
Offering the righteous a sure salvation
Within an impregnable fortification.
Earth’s proud towers always need to be restored
Rock solid hope rests on the name of the Lord.
Our church, like many in the Church of Scotland, is a 19th century sandstone building. It bears the brunt of gales coming in off the Atlantic. We weren’t surprised when a survey revealed the steeple needed urgent repairs. Fortunately, our finances were sufficiently healthy to be able to rectify the problems without too much delay. It was work that needed to be done and we were right to do it.
Yet it makes me think about the wider issue of church buildings and finances. Jesus didn’t tell us to go into all the world and become a historic building preservation society. A disproportionate amount of our time and money goes into shoring up old buildings which are no longer fit for modern purpose or meet accessibility and environmental standards. Presently, the Church of Scotland is implementing a radical action plan to greatly reduce its number of buildings against a background of under-recruitment of ministers and declining church attendance. This is understandably causing much anguish and heart-searching, and its outcomes are still uncertain.
A recent article by Liam Fraser, a minister and academic in Edinburgh, entitled The Blessing of Decline, reflects on what God might be saying to us during this difficult process of contraction and rationalisation. Broadly, he suggests that:
- the glory of the Church has departed… so now we can glory in God
- church membership is declining… so now we can rediscover discipleship
- we don’t have enough ministers… so now all must minister
- our churches are falling apart… so now we will be a Church without walls
- the state has ceased to support us… so politics can no longer harm our unity.
I agree with much of what he says, though at times I think he is trying to put on a brave face in unpalatable circumstances.
Whilst we do need to re-think church and mission, we mustn’t trivialise the importance of church buildings or attendance, else we might throw out the baby with the bathwater. The closure of churches makes it clear that it is the people who are the Church, and not any building. I have a very great deal of sympathy for his conclusion that “…the end of churchgoing means that worship must now go out to our neighbours, meeting in places and spaces that are intuitive and winsome…”. Our church buildings, with their towers, spires and steeples, may look imposing and have the familiarity of an old friend. But at the end of the day, God is our tower: He calls us to trust in His strength, and invest our time and resources into new ways of being church.
(A Strong Tower acrostic appears on my Old Testament: History, Law and Poetry page).