Hands off my church
Muslim leader Dalil Boubakeur had an idea for addressing the shortage of mosques for Muslim communities in France – convert some unused churches into mosques. It’s not hard to see why the idea occurred to Boubakeur, a Frenchman. Many of the 45,000 church buildings in France are empty. In highly secularized France, less than 5% of the population attends worship.
Better to put the empty churches to religious use, he figured, than to see them become bars, bookstores, concert venues, restaurants, or grocery stores, all of which have proven popular conversion options for church buildings there.
But 40,000 French Christians quickly galvanized against Boubakeur’s comment. They joined conservative politicians and intellectuals to sign a petition, “Hands off my church.” It turns out their resistance is fierce.
People who cling to a vestige of Christianity have always fascinated me. Except for a tiny nostalgic thread, the Christian faith has no real traction in many lives. You would think that if church meant so much to these 40,000 French petitioners, it would show up as a value in their lives. Every Sunday the pews would be packed with their fervor.
But that isn’t happening in France. And for many self-identifying Christians in America, it isn’t happening here either.
Multiple times each year I meet with people who have no practicing faith or church affiliation, but who are scared of dying without having secured a clergyperson to bury them. I try to let them in on a secret: “You don’t need a seminary graduate to bury you. Funeral directors and cemetery staff pick up a shovel all the time. But yes, I’d be glad to be available.”
Individuals for whom church plays no active role in their life, but who seem desperate to engage religious ritual to get their young child baptized, equally puzzle. “When can we get it done?” they ask. I’m not sure why they think “it” has to happen in a church for which they have no time, and in a congregation from which they often disappear immediately after the baptism. But instead of letting them in on the secret that a bathtub works just fine too, and that plenty of everyday people like nurses on maternity units are well-practiced at baptism, I prefer to invite them to explore Christianity as a way of life.
Our church receptionist fields calls every week from people who have no interest in practicing their faith in a religious community, but whose fresh acquisition of a diamond ring suddenly inspires the conviction that they must get married in a church. Since I don’t field those calls, I don’t get the chance to tell them that my own son was married in a barn, or that, on the eighth day of creation, God created justices of the peace.
I understand where nominal Christians are coming from. Faith was once only an intellectual exercise for me. I understood “Christian” as a pleasant but largely innocuous identity. But then, something changed. Through friends, God gave me a new way of looking at faith. I’ve been delighting ever since in what I once laughed at – that an actual relationship with God is not only plausible, but awesomely life-giving.
– Peter Marty, senior pastor