I have been traveling considerably of late by foot, bike, car, bus, train and plane. I am exploring cities, towns and villages in and near Lithuania while I teach here. I seek out the church buildings. The appearance of a church building in a town tells me something about that community. Often the churches are in a state of repair. This seems to be fitting for the state of the church in Eastern Europe.
God is in the business of repairing his world and his people. It is an on-going process. The church is always in a state of repair. Some repairs are due to neglect. Others are due to direct attacks and misappropriations. The church and its buildings in Eastern Europe have suffered greatly from both. Will the repairs remodel the church for what is needed today? Too often the repaired churches are empty. They are tourist attractions from the past. Even if there are worshippers, young people – the future – are largely missing.
How can the church be remodeled for the present and the future, not just a repair for historic value? Even though I love church buildings and the variety of church architecture that reveals its theology, I see that churches are often built to do the ministry of the past, not the future. They can as much restrict ministry as assist it.
Reformed Church of Latvia and Lithuania
The Reformed church building in Riga, Latvia is a monument to the past. The church was started while John Calvin was still alive, and the Old Town building, just off the main square, is from 1733. The Reformation came early here, but it was weakened by the Counter Reformation. The Lutherans held on, but the Reformed dwindled until the Soviets closed the church building. Now it is not even open to tourists.
In Lithuania the Lutherans and Reformed are the two state-recognized Protestant traditions. They, along with the Orthodox and Catholic, can do official acts of marrying and burying. These days, they are burying more than they are marrying. The Reformed service I attended in Klaipeda had 12 people worshipping. It met at the Klaipeda University Theology Department, which is closing because it does not have enough students. Maybe there is some irony that the department is housed in the former brig of the Soviet army base and before them the Prussians. The church might be imprisoned in the past.
Past, present, future Church
I am not in favour of rejecting the past, nor do I wish to return to it. Many churches have lost a sense of history in their worship practices. Others dwell only on an individual personal present or a longed-for heavenly future. How is the church built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself the cornerstone, and how will it keep growing into the temple of God’s presence (Eph. 2:19-22)?
We can learn from both the past and the present to remodel the church for the future. When we see how Christ, the prophets and the apostles addressed their times, we will better see how to address ours. We can learn from the history of the church in its success and failure. It fails when it gets caught in the past or escapes to an otherworldly future. It succeeds when it brings the message of the past and the future to the complex realities of the present.
Remodeling is not just the role of the church symbolized by a building. It’s the task of every believer. I see many students who are lost. They are disconnected from their past. They want to forget the horrors of previous generations, or they have rejected the traditions because they see them as only pointing to the past, not the future. Some see little hope for the future. They are alone, living in a world of seeking only a personal present experience or escape. They need a foundation and a future on which to model their present.
How can the church be remodeled? People need to see a church that is seeking justice and showing love. Worship is not enough. They need a church that works. They need community, but a community that is doing something meaningful in the world now. I doubt if restoring the buildings of the past will rebuild the church. A church that is working to restore people, cultures, the world through God’s love, the forgiveness and acceptance of Christ, and the new life and power of the Spirit is a remodeling church.