At my church the other day, the pastor said that next Sunday he wanted to talk about his “vision” for the future. Oh. I know what that means: building programs. I’ve seen this before several times. His vision will probably be about buying more property or constructing bigger auditoriums. There was a big chunk of land just up the street that they had been interested in, although the owner was still reluctant to sell. It seems that things invariably reach this stage when churches get to a certain size.
Speaking of buildings, what churches have on their properties nowadays are almost always auditoriums of some kind, big or small. Mega-churches, on the other hand, can be small cities almost, stretched out on enormous properties with huge auditoriums, and having wide parking lots, schools, bookstores, and offices, even restaurants and coffee-shacks and businesses on the side. But there is one thing I don’t think you will ever see, and that is cemeteries. Churches no longer take care of burying the dead, and churches don’t have sextons or fossors.
If one looks back in history, it wasn’t always this way. Let’s take Britain for example. Look at some of the old parish churches that dot the English landscape and almost always there was a graveyard situated on the church grounds, usually somewhere in eyesight of the sanctuary. Often one had to pass tombstones on either side of the walkway to get to the main entrance. To go to church on Sunday meant encountering some reminder of our mortality just over your shoulder. You knew that when you died the brethren at your church would take part in arranging your burial beneath consecrated ground. And when your surviving relatives went to church, they would pass by your tombstone and see your name inscribed there, along with your date of birth followed by the date of your death. Back in those days the term “xtian burial” had a very definite meaning, and life was recognized as something fleeting, and our stay in this world as only very temporary.
It seems, especially in the United States—at least everywhere I’ve been—that churches no longer have graveyards located on their properties. Instead we have asphalt parking lots, somewhere to park our massive, shining SUVs. Yet there is nowhere to park your mortal remains as they await the resurrection of the dead. It’s a little strange that things have turned out this way because I thought that the resurrection of the dead was central to the whole xtian Gospel, what our core message revolved around. But going to church no longer has any reminders that we’re all going to die. In fact, the whole messy business of sickness and death has been pushed off to be handled, out of sight, by the medical industry and the funerary professionals, who charge exorbitant prices, the first to ameliorate the suffering, and the second to hide its ravages with clever makeup. No longer do the brothers and sisters of your church take your mortal remains, bathe them, lay them out naked on the table, and lovingly wrap them in shrouds and grave clothes, put them in a coffin, and bury them in the cool green earth. Once death was a serious matter of keen interest to xtians, and it was a community affair for the whole church; burying the dead once was one of the Church’s important ministries. Back when Xnty started, xtians in Rome were even meeting in catacombs, which were vast underground necropolises for burying the dead. Imagine what your worship experience would be like if next to your pew there were sarcophagi, or if the interior of your mega-church was also serving as a large mausoleum. It’s true it wouldn’t be very “seeker sensitive”, but definitely there would be more depth of commitment. The Roman xtians didn’t seem to have a problem evangelizing their neighbors. Somehow they got them to come to church, even though it was located down there with the sepulchers.
What does the word “secularism” mean? Well, the word “secular” originally had as its core meaning the idea of an “age”. In fact, in astronomy the word “secular” is still used in this sense when refering to changes in the parameters of the planetary orbits that shift gradually over long periods of time or “ages”. But “secular” also came to refer to human life as it pertained to this present age or world in contrast to life in the age to come. And nowadays “secularism” really designates the general and pervasive attitude that only life in this present world is all the matters or should ever hold our attention. On the other hand, being a xtian means, or should mean, that one has realized that such an attitude is at its essence erroneous, and that this present life cannot be even properly understood except by reference to the Age that is to come. If we had cemeteries brushing up adjacent to our church auditoriums, would it help to counteract the overwhelming secularism of our ultramundane society? I think it might help. A cemetery is a reminder of the supreme fact that this life comes to an end, which is something most Americans very much like to keep from intruding into their consciousnesses. As the Scriptures say, it is appointed to man once to die, after that the Judgement. So if you can look out the window and see the tombstones as your pastor is preaching about this, I think the truth of it will strike a little more vividly, because you will know that it could just as easily be your tombstone out there that someone will be looking at someday. Imagine what evangelism would be like. Standing in contrast to the mad American scramble to acquire more things, there would be those somber reminders out there in the boneyard you walked past, as you went in through the front door, shook hands with the “greeter” in the foyer, and picked up the Sunday’s bulletin (packed with half a dozen different, multi-colored sheets of paper and what not)—yes, those silent reminders that life is short.
I doubt that I ever will get to vote on the pastor’s vision for the future. Probably things have been decided already, and I am sure the congregation will go along with whatever he has in mind. But there is this large section of vacant land just east of the church parking lot. If I were able to propose a motion for a vote, perhaps I’d suggest that the land be used for a cemetery, instead of a larger auditorium and bigger parking lot. With a little landscaping it would be quite lovely, and we could see it through the eastern windows.