Take Me to Church

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

It is said that Bishop Maurice de Sully was inspired to build Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in a dream.  He tore down the existing church on the Île de la Cité and, for the next 200 years, work began constructing one of the most famous cathedrals in the world.  I was fortunate enough to walk the marble floors in awe of its grandeur, and experienced what cannot be felt in a modern church:

Those ceilings sculpted into foliage of different kinds, those buttresses which prop the walls, and terminate abruptly like the broken trunks of trees, the coolness of the vaults, the darkness of the sanctuary, the dim twilight of the aisles, … in a word, every thing in a Gothic church reminds you of the labyrinths of a wood; every thing excites a feeling of religious awe, of mystery, and of the Divinity.

The two loft towers erected at the entrance of the edifice overtop the elms and yew-trees of the churchyard, and produce the most picturesque effect on the azure of heaven.

~ François-René, Vicomte de Chateaubriand, Architecture in France: 1800-1900 (pg. 10-11)

I grew up in a small church belonging to a small denomination – Park Avenue Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  Built in 1930, with later additions, it was a simple stone church and, while it was nothing like the massive Gothic cathedrals François-René wrote of, it had the religious elements – sanctuary, choir loft, organ, piano, pews, hymn books – that made it feel like a house of God.

Park Avenue Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee (1930)

Many churches today seem more like “houses of lots and lots of people.”  Somewhere along the way, sanctuaries became auditoriums; pews are now movie theatre seats.  Organs and choirs singing hymns have been replaced by too-loud rock-and-roll bands singing pop-Christian music; pastors don’t wear robes anymore; no offering plates are passed around.  It’s a big part of why I haven’t been to church in a while – nearly every symbol of a holy experience has been stripped away.  Modern churches don’t look or feel like the sorts of places to be quiet with God.  There’s too much going on for that.  There is what I call a “church-plex” in my hometown that comes to mind immediately: it consists of a 7,000-seat worship center, family life center, preschool wing, athletic complex, multipurpose wing, and parking lot signage more reminiscent of a shopping mall than a place of worship.

Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tennessee (1989)

That is not for me.  And I may not be alone.  I’ve recently read about two churches taking different paths toward a more intimate worship experience.

Concord Presbyterian Church here in Knoxville is embracing its history, as well as its 140-year old building, and maintains a traditional worship service – no big screens, no praise bands.

I think there’s a hunger for the preaching of the gospel and a traditional worship service in a small church environment.  I think there’s a great number of people who get lost in large congregations.

~ Rev. Charles Farmer, Farragut Press, June 22, 2017

Concord Presbyterian Church, Knoxville, Tennessee (1877)

A new Cumberland Presbyterian church outside of Nashville, Tennessee is returning to the very early days of Christianity, when people met in homes.  As its pastor wrote:

Rather than starting with a church and creating a ministry, my plans were to start with a ministry and create a church.

Rather than moving into a building that looks like a church, we decided to start by renting a house.  By renting a house, we now have a kitchen to make food to provide for food ministries, a place to store clothing for people in need and a yard to have a community garden to provide fresh produce for the area.  This home has helped us start the ministries we are so eager to create and gives us a place to worship together and call home.

~ Tommy Clark, The People’s Table, Missionary Messenger, Summer 2016

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to how and where someone should practice their chosen religion.  The fact that there are so many unique ways to connect with our spirituality is one of our greatest freedoms in this country.  And in fairness, large churches are able to make big impacts in their communities.

As for me, though – surprise, surprise! – I opt for the old-fashioned approach.  Like François-René, I want to feel a connection with the heavenly realm when I’m in a church – something bigger than myself; a structure built to glorify God, rather than to entertain man.  This Gothic-style church in midtown Memphis has always been my favorite.

Idlewild Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee (1928)

No softball field required.

2 Comments

  1. Beth,
    This is so well written – and straight from your heart. I really liked how you embedded photos of the buildings you were citing in the text too. I once read a book about the intentional transition of church architecture in the 20th century away from the traditional, more personal style that you speak of. If I can find the book, I’ll be happy to share it with you. Thanks for the link to your blog – I will try to find time to read all of your posts!

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