Wednesday, March 10, 2021

I Wonder What the Church Scene Is Like in Heidelberg?

Two years ago my family and I for a month walked, biked, and took public transit around Scotland and northern England.  We visited nearly every holy site, chapel, cathedral, church or religious place of significance along the route.  As exhilarating as it was for us to have this experience, it was also very depressing.  

I described all the churches as 3D churches: Dark, Dank, & Dead.  

The churches we visited revealed to me the way forward for churches like Judson Memorial Baptist Church - either get your act together and turn the operation around or let things run their course, shrivel, and die.  And yet they were filled with such promise.  Nearly every church was a hospitality center providing a public restroom, a place to get tea or hot chocolate and a scone, a bookstore, places to pray and meditate, public noontime organ concerts, and contained the most localized "liturgy" I had ever witnessed.  They were eco-friendly, socially conscious, and super friendly (even too friendly).  But I could not see a link between what they did on the inside of the church and what they did outside of the church.  

The one thing that disappointed me was the reluctance of churches to embrace bicycling.  We saw plenty of people out bicycling, but not one bike parking facility at a church.  I'm sure they exist, but we didn't see any.  

Which makes me wonder what the future of the church is for locales that are seeking to be car-free or carbon neutral?  

Last week the city of Heidelberg Germany was featured in the New York Times with the headline, "The City Where Cars Are Not Welcome." I read the story with great anticipation, but I was not surprised to find that churches were not mentioned in the article.  I searched the web for churches in the downtown core and discerned no conversation or mentioning of the car-free movement (I did find one church with a bicycling club, but it was a weekend bike packing club).  Which is a shame because for 1,900 years churches existed just fine, even thrived, without cars at all.  But cars and their usage have become so interlocked with church life that it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a future without them.  In a similar manner, several years ago I contacted Pieter van Wingerden the librarian at International Baptist Theological Study Centre in Amsterdam. I contacted him to inquire about bicycling and church life.  He did not understand my question, because for him there was no way to separate bicycling from Dutch culture, rather one was a church goer or not.  

During the pandemic the biking became more popular than ever.  Bike shops were even busy in Minnesota in January!  People started walking more and more.  The value of public transit and public transit workers as essential and frontline workers was revealed more than ever.  As vaccines become more readily available you can feel the power of the economy growing every day.  You can almost feel the shift from gas-powered to electric-powered cars as the panacea for economic growth and environmental progress.  But electric cars, as great as they are (and my next car purchase will be an electric car) are still cars.  

I don't think electric cars are going to save local churches.  I think local transparent worshipping communities will save the local church.  Places that are the same on the inside as they are on the outside.  Places that promote eco justice and promote walking, biking, taking public transit and carpooling in both church life and public life.  

As downtown areas seek to become car-free, I think one of the great car-free institutions, the Church, should be one of their biggest supporters.  

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