A Church With Open Doors

This is a magical time in Minnesota. Another long winter has faded, and we have shed our thick coats and mittens. The bugs have not yet appeared but it is warm outside, so we throw open every window we can find and let the warmth and fresh air into closed-off spaces.

On Sunday during these few short weeks, it isn't unusual to see a church with the doors open before and even during the service. You can walk by and glimpse the people inside. Even better, you can sit in a pew and feel the breeze coming in. When I sit in church with the doors thrown open, what I love most are the sounds of it all. There are the city noises, and snatches of conversation as people walk by. At my home church, I might hear the rush of the creek just outside. I close my eyes, knowing people will assume I am deep in prayer, but I am listening like a spy with his ear pressed to a radio receiver, soaking up the clues to what is happening just beyond those wide-open doors.

Breaking down the barrier between the outside and the inside is something that Christians should feel deeply. One of the profound stories at the heart of the faith comes from the very moment of Christ's death, when "the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from the top to the bottom." That curtain hid from public view the Ark of the Covenant. On one side of the veil was the public; on the other was believed to be the earthly presence of God. The tearing of the veil from top to bottom would remove that barrier--the people would have access to God and his word. I have often thought that a good symbol for Christianity would be a torn curtain, but apparently that would make for confusing jewelry.

Of course, it was people (not God) who created that curtain, just as it is our churches (not God) who close their doors to the world just outside. We imagine that God resides inside the church, but not outside--an idea that tears at the very notion of God.

What is a door or curtain made of? Often, it is theology that is alienating or inaccessible to non-experts. It might be the aloofness or pride of a church that has become too comfortable, and feels no urge to engage the world outside. It might even be built up over time from simple inattention or laziness.

As a young adult, I was a trustee of my church in Michigan. As an exercise, one week I walked into the church and pretended I was new and knew nothing of the place. Immediately, I saw things afresh. One entered from the parking lot, and to get to the sanctuary a visitor had to go up a flight of stairs, take a left down a hallway, then a right, then enter an unmarked door off-center to the right. No signs directed me. Just inside the parking lot door, too, was a sign that listed the location of the nursery, the church office, and other places, but it was all wrong--a renovation had shuffled everything a few years before. I asked my committee about that, and it turned out someone had lost the key to the showcase, so they hadn't bothered to change the sign.

At the moment, there is a vigorous discourse over the cause of a recent decline in American church membership. Some feel the church has become too liberal, others blame conservatives. In truth, the problem may be more basic than any of that. The doors are too often closed.