NEW YORK (RNS) On a Greenwich Village street where male prostitutes seeking customers shout out their dimensions, I walked past an open but empty church on my way to the subway.
In times past, flocking to church on Sunday morning was a beloved family routine, even here in bad old Gotham. Now they're trying nontraditional worship on Sunday evenings.
It's a struggle, both here and elsewhere in the 21st-century Christian world. Buildings with "beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God," as Luke described the temple in ancient Jerusalem, are falling into disuse and disrepair -- not because Caesar attacked and took revenge on an alien religion, but because the world changed and gathering weekly in "Gothic piles" no longer seems necessary for finding faith.
Smart faith communities are looking beyond Sunday morning, taking ministries out into the world, forming home-based fellowships, reaching people online, and focusing on the Jesus who calls us to faith, not the church that calls us to a Sunday pew.
It isn't easy to grasp the new thing God seems to be doing. In a recent homily, Pope Francis seemed to share two fresh thoughts. The first was that the church is for everyone, especially for sinners; it's not a closed circle and it's not for sale.
He went on to describe the Christian journey as "invitation to a feast." At first glance, that seemed to affirm the Mass as the center of faith and the church that offers the Mass as custodian of faith.
But when I read his words carefully, I found a more subtle, less institutional message about people being drawn "to the joy of being saved, to the joy of being redeemed, to the joy of sharing life with Christ."
"You are called to a party!" Francis said. "A feast is a gathering of people who talk, laugh, celebrate, are happy together."
Maybe he meant to say people should find joy and laughter when they enter church doors. But I heard something deeper and more timely: namely, that the buildings, doors, institutions aren't the point. The point is what God wants to give.
If faith were about buildings and the institutions that own them, I would see little future for Christianity in America. But faith isn't about buildings or institutions. Faith is about people coming face to face with God.
Faith is about the prayers we say wherever we happen to be, the meditations we do when no one is looking, and the service we give to a broken world wherever servanthood is needed.
Faith is about our assemblies, not the place of our assembling. It is about touches we share, words we exchange, sighs too deep for words, questions beyond answering, yearnings that draw us outside ourselves.
Faith has never been about "beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God." Faith is about leaving bondage and following God across a wilderness. Faith is about awakening each day to discover God's gifts upon the ground.
In that sense, I feel great hope for Christianity. Our world needs faith. It needs something more than Mammon, deeper than comfort, more life-giving than self-service.
Our world needs God -- the God who can restore our lives to sanity, the God who sees us coming and runs toward us, the God who made us and never stops loving us, whatever we are shouting into the wind.
(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)
YS/AMB END EHRICH