Do You ‘Church’?

Volume 45, Issue 4, Michael J. Crosbie, Ph.D.

Have you noticed that the word “church” is now a verb, as well as a noun? In just the past few weeks I participated in conferences where the question of how one “churches” was central to the discussion of religious and spiritual life.

At a seminar convened at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study by a sociologist, an architect, and an architectural historian, a group of about a dozen of us mulled over the definitions of multifaith space and interfaith worship, and how places and experiences are shaped by demographics. Alice Friedman, an architectural historian at nearby Wellesley College, related that her students described their ideal multifaith space as a reconstruction of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, where no one would be allowed to talk. Brandeis University sociologist Wendy Cadge offered that some of her students describe the perfect interfaith space as one where each person could sit at a desk sheltered from others and focus attention on a book or a digital device; they would thus be in the same space with each other, but would also be remote. These two visions of multifaith space don’t place much value on corporate worship. “Doing church” is becoming less than a matter of believers gathering for a celebration of faith, and more one of a personal experience that might be shared digitally. The implications for such a multifaith space are profound, in that many different kinds of believers could use the same space simultaneously, each doing his or her own version of church without impinging on others’ experience.

Does this sound isolating? Moving toward a “Church of One,” as it has been described, changes how we think of sacred space. Without a shared idea of the sacred, how does one respond through architecture and art? One point of consensus made at the Harvard gathering was that the human need for built environments that are transcendent or ineffable will continue even if the liturgical requirements of such spaces atrophy.

At Virginia’s Architecture Exchange East convention in early November, architect Michael Foster and I gave presentations on the subject of God in the city. Foster noted that the fastest growing Christian congregations rely on digital means to bring believers together. Of course, the idea of a dispersed congregation drawn together virtually is as old as radio. Are cell phones and iPads where congregants come together only in cyberspace the future of church? Does this sound like the ideal way to “church” described by Cadge’s students? “Churching” digitally is not new, but you have to wonder whether a generation who prefer to interact with other humans through some digital device will spell the end of sacred space.

But, not so fast…have you heard about the revival of letter writing? In the UK and the US, some twenty-somethings have discovered the old-fashioned pleasures of writing on paper with ink pens (fountain pen sales, reportedly, have surged) and sending the missives off in envelopes through the post office! One entrepreneur has opened the “Letter Lounge,” a room where people can socialize while they compose handwritten correspondence. She reports that her most dedicated customers are in their 20s.

Is this just a fad, or maybe a model for a “new” way to “church”?

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