Church Buildings and Plastic Couch Covers
By Derek Penwell
Growing up I had a friend whose family had a formal living room. I’m not sure why they had a formal living room, since they got just about as much use out of it as the crawl space under the stairs, which always seemed prone to flooding. But having a formal living room was a big deal … I guess in case the President or K.C. and the Sunshine Band stopped by to visit.
And while the President and Mr. Sunshine Band would have been welcome to sit on the plastic couch cover, ordinary human beings were not. It was a place set aside for some ultra special event that everybody believed might one day occur, and for which no one wanted to be unprepared. And so it languished in all its Teak-paneled and shag-carpeted glory, its uncomfortable looking orange couch and lacquered end tables gathering dust.
Not that it looked like a great place, either to play or relax, but I always harbored a secret desire to sneak into that living room and start moving the macraméed owl wall hangings and the vases filled with big glass balls around. I knew such hijinks in the forbidden room would be stroke-inducing to the people in charge, but dang, it felt like it needed to be done.
I suspect the need to have a perfectly preserved room (even if it looked like a touching/creepy homage to the Partridge Family) stemmed from the desire of working class folks to have nice things. Many of the folks in that generation had come of age in the aftermath of the Depression, World War II, and then the cultural pre-pubescence of the 1950s. Having nice things for certain social classes in this generation was still a relatively new phenomenon. Like domestic police, the impulse to “preserve and protect” seemed a natural response to the rapidly shifting political and cultural forces reshaping the American landscape.
“Get out of the living room!” and “You better not spill anything on the good furniture!” became the new suburban rallying cries. Some rooms were for everyday, and some rooms were for … well, never.
I preferred the family rooms of my youth to the living rooms—the former to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored, the latter to be encased in harvest gold amber, and to be later excavated by post-apocalyptic anthropologists looking to explain the domestic habits of late twentieth-century bourgeoisie.
Unfortunately, not only were the aesthetics of this time ecclesiastically enshrined in church buildings [Seriously? Burnt orange upholstery on the pews? Have you seen this?], but in many congregations so were the attitudes about church buildings as special places to be protected against all human encroachment, preserved for some special purpose at a distant point on the horizon of time.
Look, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be places in a church that are set apart as holy space. The sanctuary probably shouldn’t double as the gym for the Day Care during the week. The baptistry probably shouldn’t house hidden jacuzzi nozzles for staff parties. We probably shouldn’t eat our Cap’n Crunch out of the offering plates. Fine.
Let me be clear, I’m thinking less about the use of particular rooms in a church than about the church building itself. In many people’s minds the church building has become the plastic-wrapped living room that should be safeguarded against the invasion of sticky-fingered people bent on messing it up.
But what if the church building was recast as a family room, to be used, dirtied, broken, and restored?
What if we turned loose of the idea that churches are antiques to be collected, rather than tools to be used to accomplish some purpose?
What if congregations took a chance and let the community use their space as a gift to those with whom they live and work, instead of defaulting to suspicion of motives or fear of what might happen?
Declining mainline denominations have these huge legacy buildings, sucking up more and more resources. What if congregations said, “We’re going to think about this building as a launching pad, rather than a saddle?”
Mistakes will certainly be made. It’s going to get messed up. Somebody’s inevitably going to spill something on the plastic couch covers; somebody’s going to move the owl hangings and leave beer can rings on the lacquered end table.
So, fix it … or learn to love beer can rings.
People visit museums; they don’t live in them.