One Sunday morning, I stopped in at the Starbucks directly across the street from the Cathedral. The barista asked about my clerical collar. When I told him I worked at the (large neo-gothic) church visible from his workstation, he commented on how nice it was to see it open and lamented that it was usually closed.
“But it’s not,” I replied. “The Cathedral is open all day, every day, all year long.”
The Cathedral has large red doors that are swung wide open every day. The interior doors are made of glass, a deliberate choice made during a development project in the late 1980s. The glass doors ensure that, even in the winter, those on the inside can see out and those on the outside can see in. They serve as a reminder that the church lives in the world and lives for the world; they serve as evidence that what we do is not a secret, not private, not “ours.”
And yet my friendly, curious barista barely noticed our presence.
And he is not unique. I have ceased to be surprised when people tell me they didn’t know there was a church beside the Bay store on St. Catherine’s Street, probably the busiest pedestrian street in Montreal. For more than a few people, we are simply invisible, in spite of the fact that the church takes up an entire city block.
This invisibility is both a serious problem and a great opportunity. It tells us that the church has become so irrelevant in the lives of many Montrealers that they don’t even notice our existence—their eyes simply slide off even our most obvious outposts. We may be proclaiming the Good News, but we clearly aren’t doing it loudly enough to attract their attention.
On the other hand, indifference is not hostility. Some people in church land assume that we know what “the world” thinks of us. People aren’t joining churches because they think Christians are judgmental, hateful, foolish, irrational…According to this view, we have to rehabilitate our reputations before we can hope to have anyone pay us any attention. But, while this is certainly true for some people and in some contexts, my barista would suggest otherwise.
If we are invisible, we have no reputation from which to recover (or upon which to build). There is now a generation of adults whose parents were not church-goers. In my experience, many of these people are curious about what we do and who we are—once they notice we even exist. So how do we get noticed if the wide-open red doors on a city-block-worth of Cathedral don’t do the trick?
We (together as the Body of Christ and separately as its members) need to boldly-but-humbly introduce ourselves to our neighbours, offering our services and our insights where appropriate, extending invitations and accepting theirs as we share in the work for environmental and human justice and in the common joys of music, art, and community life. We need our walls to be invisible…but only our walls. Only then will the church be truly visible and the Good News of the Kingdom impossible to miss.
The Rev. Rhonda Water is associate priest of Christ Church Cathedral, diocese of Montreal.