It was a different time. My grandfather grew up in household whose members only seldom darkened the door of a church. Nonetheless, in that era in rural Indiana Sunday morning was a time of rest. For this reason, he was granted greater freedom in his boyhood on Sunday mornings in particular. This gave him the license to escape to the woods and fields around their home, away from the ever present burdens of chores and agricultural life. While his parents listened to the hum of the radio in the house, he was set free to wander. He heard the crunch of sticks and snow beneath his feet in the winter and the buzz of grasshoppers jumping from fencerows in the summer. Above all of this, however, he would hear the bell of the country church near his home ring. With the holy and graced imagination of a child he sensed God calling to him through the bell, calling him to relationship. Eventually he would come to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ and communion with the church because of the gracious resonance the bell found in his heart.
Of course, times have change. In our own context in Lapel our church bells have not rang for more than a decade. It was more than a decade ago that the old sanctuary was demolished, the church bell stashed away with care in a church member’s barn. If we were to tell the truth, the bell had long since ceased to resonate in the community. The reality of our present age is that even if people could hear the bell above the noise of life, they wouldn’t know what it means in the same way my grandfather did. The cultural power of Christianity is on the decline, attendance with religious institutions is in sharp decline, and the sense people have of the world has been stripped of its mystery, no longer imbued with divine presence (thanks to Charles Taylor * The Secular Age for naming these realities with such clarity). In our world the church bell is just yet another noise, one of many. It no longer resonates.
In the last years at Ford Street Church we’ve been talking about the kind of church God wants us to be, given all that is named above. This has led you all to be supportive of my sabbatical time in Norway studying the contours of secularity and how communities of faith can adapt in a more stridently secular context. This has led us to dreams of a new place of worship and also of new uses of the space we’re freeing up. These conversations have by no means been disconnected from the cultural shifts named above. In fact, at every step we’ve been intentional to ask, “How is what we’re learning informing what we do next?” We’re not just talking about space, we’re talking about culture, we’re talking about how these issues intersect with justice. We’re getting better at finding those points at which God’s love can be heard to resonate in our community. The Supply Store which provides school supplies, t-shirts, and shoes to children on our elementary free and reduced lunch list is a tremendous example. Free pizza in our community for kids during the pandemic was another.
In the last couple of months it has felt more than ever like these seemingly divergent points are coming together around a singular space and idea. A team has been established and exploring the options. What if Ford Street Church were to use the large space we are opening up as a point of resonance in our community? What if we opened a café to the public? What if the funds could be used to fund ministries of compassion (such as the Lapel Food Pantry and the above mentioned Supply Store) and to convene conversations about justice (you know, the kind of stuff typically only fire off angry facebook posts about: racism, sexism, addiction. What if we created a space that was committed to convening those conversations face to face in the presence of Jesus?! It wont happen in Lapel in any other way!). It is becoming obvious that the team is excited, but even more, that much of the church is as well. It’s not a church bell, but it is a place in which people could gather and find a kind of community that might resonate and give them the tools to face all that is happening in the world around us.
We’re still in the phase of asking a lot of technical questions. How will we do it? What would it cost to start? How can we fund the startup? How would we develop metrics to know we’re successful, not just in terms of money, but in terms of “resonance?” It may speak of the optimism of the moment, but some team members are taking notes and asking, “How can we create a model that other churches can follow?” The dream is alive and growing! It is ringing in our hearts!
The most exciting of all of this is that even the older parishioners are asking not just about where the old church bell will go, but that we are all exploring how it will guide us in the age in which we live. Lapel is changing. 180,000 people live within 10 miles of our doorstep. Growth is projected to be rapid. The cultural headwinds are changing even faster! Yet we are committed to the love of God in Jesus Christ and we are committed to being the kind of people who cause that love, mercy, and justice to ring out in our community. We can hardly wait to see what God’s Spirit might cause to ring out next, even if we suspect it will be in a far different manner than the old church bell.