...are the ones that make the biggest difference

2.16.2005

Unintentional iconoclasm?

Last Saturday I went to a one-day training conference at a church a couple of hours away. The church has grown considerably of late, and recently built a new campus. But rather than totally moving to the new facility, they are continuing to use the old building, having dedicated large part of it to the youth ministry. A fact, of which, I am not ashamed to say I am deeply envious! The old sanctuary is still in use for some of the smaller services, however, and is still lovingly maintained with its pews and hymn-books. Displayed prominently on the exterior of this building and at the head of the sanctuary, are three large crosses arranged in a pattern I had not seen before. One is, of course, higher than the others, but (as you look at it) the one on the left is nestled under the higher cross and somewhat overlapping it, while the third cross is somewhat separated from the other two off to the right. This pattern was repeated on the exterior of the new facility, which we drove by, and in other parts of the old. The architecture of the old facility was clearly "churchy", and the new had a more modern feel to it, but was still identifiable as a church.

Contrast this with my church. Except for the raised portion which houses the "auditorium", there is absolutely no identifiable feature that would distinguish it from a small office building or semi-industrial facility. This is beside my point somewhat, but the exterior is rather drab - metal siding with minimal accents and tan paint, and straight, angular lines. There are no crosses or identifying marks. Inside, one finds a rather utilitarian lobby & cafe, though it is not without its warmth. The church's logo is featured prominently on the wall opposite the front doors, but again, no crosses or other Christian marks. Enter into the "auditorium" and one finds a rather stark, rectangular room with a large stage and rows of padded chairs. While one may see the occassional cross put on stage during a specific sermon series or at the appropriate times of year, there are no permanent crosses or other adornments - the walls are completely bare year round.

The reason for this lack of Christian marks and symbolism is a pragmatic one. We are a seeker-sensitive church and it is believed that the unchurched find such symbols off-putting if not downright offensive. In order to be unoffensive, we have removed those things that would put up an unnecessary barrier to faith. We are not exactly iconoclasts in that we don't have any objections to the cross or other symbols per se, but it is clear that this is the effect. In essence, we have repudiated Christian symbols like the cross, which ironically, takes us a few (if unintentional) steps beyond the original iconoclasts. We are pragmatic iconophobes. In the manner of the iconodules of old, I am becoming aware of the larger theological implications of such iconoclasm and do not what I see.

What does the eschewal of the cross (and other Christian symbols) say about us and what will it lead to? We are, after all, not talking about actual icons - images of people or God - to which there are some understandable objections if not placed within a correct theological understanding. No, we are talking about the primary and ancient symbol of our faith, the instrument of our salvation and the salvation of the world. If this symbol, above all others, is too offensive to display in our houses of worship, what else will we find similarly offensive and remove? Looking at the cross, and the messages bound up in it - sin, death, salvation, heaven & hell, judgment & grace - what do we lose by its removal? Clearly, sin, death, judgment and hell are not easy, comfortable topics and we are not wont to preach on them because they are offensive. Whether the symbol was removed first and then the preaching, or vice versa, it matters little - the offensive, challenging focus of the Cross of Christ is gone. Similarly, any understanding of salvation, heaven & grace that is absent a grasp of the offensive poles is incomplete and the truth of them is lost. We lose much in taking down our crosses - perhaps too much. Can we preach the message of the Cross if we don't have one? And what is the message of the Cross without one?

6 comments:

Doug said...

Nathan, this is totally off topic, for which I hope you'll forgive me. But there was an interesting post on Mere Comments about teens and their attitudes toward religion. A full interview with the director of the referenced study can be found here: http://www.eppc.org/publications/pubID.2256/pub_detail.asp - Just thought you might find it interesting. Wondered also if your experience matches up with this kind of stuff.

Doug said...

I note that in my comment above the link get buried so that it's unusable. Here, I split it into three pieces for you to cut and paste, if you want to look at it.

http://www.eppc.org
/publications/pubID.2256
/pub_detail.asp

Anonymous said...

I was recently at a Christmas Eve service at a similar facilty...bare walls, tan paint, generic exterior, folding chairs. Although some lovely old songs Christmas songs were sung,it felt transient and insubstantial. There was no cross there, either. When there is no cross, it feels like no one is committed to actual worship...just getting together for a variety of reasons.

Universalist Unitarian. Not for me. mcs

alana said...

"In the manner of the iconodules of old, I am becoming aware of the larger theological implications of such iconoclasm and do not what I see."

Did you leave a word out in this sentence?

Interesting post. I would find such a situation very disturbing. How do you cope?

Nathan said...

Doug -

Thanks for the link - I'll check it out and let you know. A lot of kids are off school today, so I'm going to be out of the office most of the day.

Alana -

Oops! Yeah, there its supposed to be "do not like what I see." How do I cope? Well, by largely not going to the worship service. I do jr & sr high during the 2 services on Sunday morning, though I'm now getting into the service about once a month because a parent-volunteer wants to do the jr high that often. It came up in the turbulence a few weeks back and I now have to get into the service at least that often to "model" something - I'm not sure what or to whom, really.

I'm also going to be running my own little subversion campaign in the youth room - my sole domain. On the east wall, I'm going to paint a nice, big, bold cross - maybe even put up some other symbols if I can find someone with some artistic talent.

mcs -

I think "transient and insubstantial" is a very apt description and the point about being committed to actual worship is well made. What do we focus on, except the band, the singers, the stage, if there is no more appropriate symbol?

rev-ed said...

Just curious, but what is it about a cross which would repel a "seeker"? Certainly a seeker going to something Christian in nature would not be any too shocked to see a cross on the wall somewhere. The cross itself has become so secularized these days - it hangs from the necks of Hollywood celebrities for heaven's sake!

If a church wants to introduce someone to Jesus, why would it be afraid of a symbol which is already associated with Jesus in the first place? I just don't see a cross as a roadblock to anyone curious about Jesus Christ. If anything, it helps tell the story.