By Paul Westermeyer
When I was in college, a nearby church was open 24/7 for private prayer and meditation. For reasons of size, staffing, and design, not all churches could provide this opportunity, but I had learned by that time that there were churches in almost every community that could and did provide it. I also had learned it was not a new thing. The church has always been a place for sanctuary and prayer.
Not everybody in the church used this opportunity, and there is no reason why everybody should have. The number of people who used it was a pretty small percentage (though probably larger than one may think), but it became clear to me that it was important to those who did use it. It served the church and the world in a hospitable and welcoming way. It gave a much-needed pause for spiritual refreshment to anyone who sought it not only regularly—which some did — but also those who used it only once, or once in a while. Though tours in cathedrals have tended to turn churches into museums, even there tourists are told to respect those who are praying.
“Open for prayer” has gradually stopped. I found one church that reversed it with barbed wire and No Trespassing signs. At a church that was unlocked, a person blocked the door and told me I was only welcome to enter during service times. I have wondered more and more what this signifies. The Covid pandemic has made it more difficult than ever to keep churches open, of course, but closed churches are not only a result of the pandemic. In addition to the pandemic restrictions, security and safety concerns are a cause in normal times. So are our transportation and living arrangements. There are more cars, and people often live too far away from churches to walk quickly and easily to them.
None of these factors should be minimized, but is the importance of statistical tabulations that propel our market-driven economy also a cause, and maybe even the primary one? I would question whether it is a legitimate one. Is anything used by a few people by definition of questionable value? Should the personal prayer and meditation that arise from the church’s communal worship be controlled by the empire’s economy and popular opinion? Should the church provide a place for private prayer whether or not it is profitable and popular?
Of course we can pray in our closets, bedrooms, and kitchens; but there is value in offering places of retreat in or near (as in a prayer chapel) the sacred spaces where the body of Christ gathers communally around Word, Font, and Table with the cloud of witnesses and the iconography that’s there. Do statistics really matter? Or is the gathering of two or three in Christ’s name more important?
A much larger question lies beneath the surface, a question about the relationship between private prayer, common prayer, and the common good with its justice. I do not mean to suggest that nobody in the church cares about these matters. Clearly, there are those who do. I only wonder if we as the church generally have neglected questions like this, and whether closed churches are a symptom of this neglect. Have we separated private prayer and justice into isolated entities, minimizing their importance by pulling them out of their natural habitat in the rainbow of God’s grace and mercy?
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Paul Westermeyer is Emeritus Professor of Church Music and Cantor at Luther Seminary where he directed the Master of Sacred Music degree program with St. Olaf College. His life’s work has been devoted to church music and the role of the church musician. His writing includes Te Deum: The Church and Music, The Church Musician, and the Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship.