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Beyond the “People”: The Stories Congregational Buildings Tell by Nancy Ammerman

Two stories back in 2014 had me thinking about that old children’s finger play – “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, open the doors and see all the people.”  Congregations certainly are “the people.”  But most are also the building and all the “stuff” they accumulate.

Lots of theologians and church critics lament the emphasis on material things, but we human beings express who we are by making things.  And we express who we collectively are by making and building and saving things together.

On Tuesday, an historic African American church in Atlanta was bulldozed to make way for a new football stadium (surely there’s at least one good sermon in that metaphor!).  Standing in southwest Atlanta since 1879, Friendship Baptist was full of history – playing a role in the establishment of Morehouse and Spellman Colleges, among other things.  It was also full of individual stories of births and deaths and baptisms and marriages.

Meanwhile, two historians were making their way around to Massachusetts Congregational churches to collect the records they have stashed in attics and basements, hoping to preserve and digitize them for posterity.  In those often-brittle pages are more stories – decisions made, sins confessed, births and deaths, even the occasional account of a journey toward conversion.

So I’ve been thinking about buildings and “stuff.”  Thinking about how often they hold stories that congregations forget to tell, sometimes until it is too late.  Over the years, one of the most fruitful exercises we’ve recommended to people who want to understand the culture of their congregation is an “artifacts inventory.”  We invite groups of people make lists of the things in their space that they would most miss and why.  Sometimes that is combined with a “space tour,” inviting participants to stop to tell stories about what makes various places meaningful.  We’ve also learned that different groups in the same congregation may conduct the tour very differently!  That’s an important revelation, too.

Buildings and stuff don’t last forever, of course.  But when their stories are told and retold, the life of a congregation can be continually enriched.  New members and old can discover values that have shaped how the congregation does its work.

Nancy Ammerman
About the Author
Dr. Nancy T. Ammerman is Professor of Sociology of Religion in the Department of Sociology and School of Theology at Boston University. A longtime member of the Congregational Studies Team, she is Project Director of