The Pub Moved Into the Church and the Church Left the Building

We can probably all name a church building that has been turned into a pub, where religious artifacts provide aesthetic charm. At one particular Pittsburgh establishment, bulk tanks brewing small-batch beers extend across the altar of an historic Catholic church, back-lit for effect. Another utilizes old wooden pews with restored stained-glass windows and religious artifacts on the walls.

In cities across the continent, buildings which formerly anchored religious communities now provide space for neighbors to gather for pints of beer, food and conversation amidst symbols and memories of holiness. When we prepare leaders for the twenty-first century church, we should keep these churches-turned-pubs in mind, for they simultaneously remind us of our North American context and compel us to take creative, hopeful risks.

The truth of our situation

Like it or not, the closed-up and re-purposed church building is a sign of our times.

It’s not just that we are experiencing declining numbers of people in the pews and dollars in the plate, but that we feel powerless to stop the rising tide of social, religious and cultural change. We cannot stop the tide, and neither can we stop churches turning into pubs. Like it or not, the closed-up and re-purposed church building is a sign of our times. Click To Tweet

This is now our reality, what we might call “Post-Christendom,” or what Robert Putnam and David Campbell describe in American Grace as the rise of those who claim “none” on national religious surveys.

Organized religion is being displaced. Perhaps the pub has picked up the slack. We will not adequately prepare women and men for mission and ministry if we cannot face up to these facts.

New possibilities in an age of decline

If we look close enough, the same tide displacing us is also bringing new possibilities for life. Admitting the facts of our decline enables us to imagine new possibilities for church and ministry. These are several ideas I encourage you to consider:

I. There is still spiritual need in our culture.

Displacement of church buildings and the closing of congregations do not erase longings for authentic spirituality and meaningful community. While congregations struggle to keep their doors open, our neighbors live in what Charles Taylor calls the “cross-pressured” present, where spiritual longings and hopes interrupt the everyday rituals of our “secular age.”

Entrepreneurs purchase churches for a particular aesthetic, and they re-appropriate religious artifacts to create spaces for gathering and commerce. Perhaps they draw parasitically upon religious symbols; perhaps they use religious symbols ironically (I wonder about the bulk-tanks on the altar).

While it might be possible to live as though God doesn’t exist, it isn’t always easy.

In Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, sociologist Nancy Ammerman reports on the religious practices and spiritual experiences of a broad cross-section of the United States. She concludes that underneath the “nones” and “dones” lay a rich, though often fragmented, tapestry of religiosity and spiritual intentionality. Our displacement does not mean irrelevance. Dominant culture engages the religious, even in our secular age. While it might be possible to live as though God doesn’t exist, it isn’t easy. Click To Tweet

II. Revival by fire.

While the rising “Post-Christendom” tide may push the church from its large, centralized buildings, it need not wash the church away. It is true that congregations do not play the social role they once did. But in losing the big building at the center of town, we are forced to renegotiate and reconsider our gatherings, practices and witness.

Through this renegotiation, new communities are formed and cultures shaped. Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making uses the metaphors of gardener and the artist to describe the ongoing world-making work of human communities.

When we speak and love and resist and, yes, worship, we draw from and contribute to cultural worlds.

In the same way that pubs can draw from religious histories and symbols to create meaningful gathering spaces and community, so also communities of Christ are invited to bear witness to the gospel with any cultural materials available. When we speak & love & resist & worship, we draw from & contribute to cultural worlds. Click To Tweet

We may have lost the big, central building, and we may no longer curate the symbols and artifacts of our tradition for the neighborhood in the same way, but we are invited to creatively participate in Christ through God’s Spirit and bear witness to the gospel in ways as unexpected as a church turning into a pub.

The pub has moved into the church, and the church has left the building. What we initially experience as loss, Pat Keifert calls a “new missional era” for the church. We acknowledge our changed context so that our ministry preparation can work with a new set of cultural materials, to participate in the formation of a plausible post-Christendom faith. We acknowledge our changed context so that our ministry preparation can work. Click To Tweet

The fight has already begun!

Thankfully, seminaries and organizations across North America have already taken this call seriously by shaping theological education around contextual ministry experiences that plunge students into cultural contexts as learners for the sake of the gospel.

Organizations like Forge and V3 and Missio Alliance have formed broad coalitions which help communities re-imagine missional formation.

At Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, we have created a one-year certificate program in church planting and revitalization which allows students to remain in their context, engaging the human environment around them, while they develop greater capacity for theologically reflective ministry.

Our post-Christendom era invites us to connect spirituality with mission. The displacement of our denominational structures and congregational programs does not make spirituality irrelevant. In fact, our creative and imaginative engagement with our context depends upon the patience and attentiveness cultivated by Christian spirituality.

John V. Taylor writes in The Go-Between God, “The main concern of any missionary training should be to help people to become more receptive to the revelations of God.” Our creative and imaginative engagement depends upon our patience and attentiveness. Click To Tweet

Preparation for missional ministry should enable us to recognize how God is already present and at work at any given time and place. In order to do this, we must be well-practiced in listening and praying and naming what God is doing. Without the certainties of establishment religion, contemplative spirituality cultivates in us a posture of availability to recognize and respond to the revelations of God.

Imagine the work of an artist or a gardener. Both tasks involve hard and intentional work. But they also require receptivity and availability. The gardener must wait for rain and sun, work within the limits of soil and place and climate, while still actively cultivating the possibility of life.

So also, art is created but also received. Anyone who has written or sung or painted knows what it is to work and also to wait. Ministry in our new missional era will engage our contexts with a posture of availability: openness to the neighbor, possible interruptions, the Holy Spirit. It is here that the new will emerge. The pub may have moved in, but the church has left the building. Thanks be to God.


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