Shaping the Future

The following was originally delivered as a keynote at the 149th Annual Episcopal Diocesan Convention […]

Duo Dickinson / 10.24.19

The following was originally delivered as a keynote at the 149th Annual Episcopal Diocesan Convention in Harrisburg, PA.

SHAPE is a verb and a noun. I shape buildings every day. So I verb-shape to make noun-shapes. I am a Christian, too. Over the last 40 years, I have designed and worked on worship spaces. But I am not here to talk about what I have helped shape; I am not here to talk about nouns, of shapes made. I am here to consider the verb, of shaping the church.

At these places of worship, during countless meetings, I say that every care must be taken in every aspect of building to glorify God, and people nod their heads. But it’s disturbing to just about everyone in the room when I say that if these buildings are gone tomorrow, then that is fine, because they are just things, and God is what lives—not our constructions. Like Saint Peter, we all want to build tabernacles to the glory of God. But I know that what I shape is completely shaped, in the first place, by God.

But the world is changing. In the 21st century, we have seen cultural change that extends to everyone everywhere; here, too. If the world is changing from the Mad Men reality of the 20th century, who is doing the shaping?

After World War II, all mainline churches changed too. America saw fields of single-family homes sprouting up to create suburbs, and the landscape was literally and symbolically changed. So was the shape of the church. Two generations post-World War II saw record church attendance and parish growth. Mainline religions maintained a public place at our cultural table. There were simply more people in the pews, but then, religion was fully integrated into our popular culture, and people wrote letters and talked to each other and watched one of 4 channels on cathode ray tube TV sets.

In the 20th century, the church could determine its own “shape.” It was designed for and by the church. At my church, doors were closed at the opening procession, everyone sat in their “own pew.” This was a place where we all knew what to expect. The order allowed us to relax and be with God.

But as statistics show, and as all of us can see, all religious organizations in America are simply shrinking — here in Pennsylvania, and in North America. Given these sea changes, perhaps it may be best to lapse into popular culture. At least it would be comforting. You know the movie “Field of Dreams,” of course: about reluctant farmer Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, who has settled onto his wife’s family land in Iowa.

But he hears a voice in his field.

“If you build it, he will come.”

For Ray (like me, the architect), the idea of a quid pro quo, of earning good by doing good, is FANTASTIC. And that idea seduces the reluctant Ray into plowing under his crop to shape a place where “he” could come.

We have all seen the movie, or know about it: the gist is that Ray Kinsella was living a predictable life, so he wrecked his cornfield on faith, and the promised “he” shows up — not just Shoeless Joe Jackson but other dead baseball players as well; later, “he” is revealed to be God, and, at the penultimate end of the movie, “he” is revealed to be Ray’s father, but in the very end, Ray himself understands that he is the “he” in question.

Ray wanted to shape his field, his destiny, his relationship with his father, but in the end, God shaped Ray’s life by revealing it to him. And it was finally made clear that Ray might shape his cornfield, but God shapes everything else, including all the things Ray could not understand.

Like Ray, when what we thought was under our control is revealed to be out of our control, we become open to God. We are all here today to address the shape of our field, the church. We know the stats. In America, weekly Episcopal church attendance dropped from 800,000 to 500,000 in the last 15 years. Organized religion is changing.

This shifting shape is not limited to religion; it is cultural. As an architect for the last 40 years, I know that my profession can only hire 40% of those graduating with a professional degree, because what architects know and can be taught is losing meaning to our culture. Change is as natural as the sunset.

God’s field is faith, but perhaps those of us who labor in it need to see why the harvest is waning. Not to stretch a metaphor to breaking, but farmers often let their fields go fallow, un-planted, for a season to renew the field’s fertility. No matter how hard we work the land, ultimately the land, and God, works us.

When I was a deep-sea scallop fisherman, I never got seasick during our little boat’s endless tilting, 20 miles out to sea: and I think it is becoming a time of sea legs for all of us. (By the way, architects and deep sea fisherman share the highest suicide rate, and I am both.) Just like on my boat, and in the Bible, there are signs of the tilt in our world. If the world is tilting, it is tilting because God is tilting it. The Next Church cannot be anything that changes who we have been, that ancient connection to our humanity. If we pretend the tilt is our own, and not His, we are simply lost.

Six months ago, Notre Dame burned in the most secular part of Western Civilization — central France. We were all crushed. Faith in things, and buildings, even sacred buildings, has a shelf life. Just like us. In the creation of who we are, there is often a prosaic checklist of achievements and setbacks. But the centuries-long task of creating a place based on faith is itself a wrestling match between the secular and the sacred. A bit like faith itself.

We trust that the flying buttresses of career, love, and worth will make all this construction here, now, worth it. But none of it earns any love, no matter how joyous our expression is. The unending truth of God in our lives is nothing we can construct. It is already there. But architects like me, and humans like you, also want to cast our faith in amber: change somehow is more fear than faith. There are an infinite number of reasons Not To Build Anything.

There is risk — you can go broke, what is built can fail, it can be ugly. Every human endeavor can fail: but we think that our buildings are with all of us forever. Humans, you and me, are the only being that knows what failure is.

Jesus was human like you and me. But he was also beyond humanity. Jesus, to me, was a third way: beyond the despair of humanity, and the daunting intimidation of the infinite, he was the hope of both humanity and the unmerited grace of God. Churches, like Jesus, really are a third thing, a third reality beyond buildings and people, evoking God in the world.

Just like Ray Kinsella, architects, and all the rest of us, are easily seduced by the idea that “if you build it, they will come.” We think that if we can control anything, we can save it. Can we? We think we can make this world what we want it to be. We architects find many ways to say, “Let us make Beauty and Get Out of the Way.” But humans, architects or not, did not make this world, so we cannot make the next one, nor can we preserve the one we are comfortable with. But we can make things.

But we have to listen. It is hard to listen. It is easier to circle the wagons to protect ourselves or act out. Just ask any architect. Architects either listen to our culture or their buildings fail. Without listening, relevance becomes impossible. How can we be both noun, the shape God is creating, and how can we be simultaneously the verb, to dare to shape our church? I do not know. But we are here, together, and God is speaking to all of us.