Just today I was speaking with an Italian who is in our Romanian course. He was telling me how Italy bucked the trend of the rest of Europe in that they remained very religious. He told me all about how young people attend church in Italy and how the church helps those in need where the state doesn't. But what I found most interesting was his portrayal of a story he told me from college. The man bemoaned the fact that churches throughout Europe were only open during service hours, because in Italy, the Catholic churches are open all the time. He recounted a story of when he was in college and needed help, and he was able to enter a church in the wee hours of the morning. It meant a lot to him that he could find religious help when he was in need. I, of course, thought to myself about how sad it was that this man felt the need to enter a church for help. He should know about the priesthood of the believer and he should know that the church building and premises don't confer any spiritual advantage to a person! But then I realized how sad it was that our churches aren't open to the public all throughout the week, at the times they are most in need. I thought about how sad it is that our churches carry no more reverence or authority than the average Joe or average institution. Catholicism elevates the church and the authority in the church. While there are blindspots and pitfalls, there is also a beauty that we Protestants miss out on.
I thought about that one for a long time. The only thing Protestant churches have in common is that they're all different. But that, I think, is the key to understanding the Protestant distinction. Protestant churches, in general, don't seek to build their churches to represent God, but rather, to represent their communities. While some Protestant churches may build shiny buildings like the Orthodox or tall buildings like the Catholics, the building is usually developed to reflect a community's composition and theology. A church in a warehouse style building may represent a relatively young group who is pushing back against certain notions of church and wants to be plain on the outside so people who don't see themselves as beautiful can feel comfortable entering. Some protestant churches are basically large rec centers with a sanctuary connected to a gym. These churches may emphasize family and may desire to be the core community - the one stop shop for their people. Some protestant churches are in houses, some in schools, and some in refurbished bars. You can find a Protestant church just about anywhere.
It appears to me that the Protestant or Evangelical church emphasizes the communal nature of God. Protestant churches seek to develop a community in which others who are like them will commune. The down side to this is that consumerism often causes people to church hop, focus on themselves, and miss out on true, deep community. But when it works, Protestant churches are places where one can find accountability, openly share about life, and live in community. These churches recognize that while God is big and while he is beautiful, he is also communal. God, in the Protestant church, is experienced through living out who you are and doing what you enjoy with others.
It's interesting how our buildings can say so much about what we value and what we believe. It makes me stand in awe when I look straight up at a huge Catholic church and as I walk inside the vast rooms. I can't help but dwell on the size of the building and translate that into my thoughts about God and his majesty. Whenever I see an Orthodox church, I can't help but think about the shiny star of Bethlehem, Christ's birth for me, the beauty of his life, and the wonder of the resurrection. I can't help but think about the shedding of my old self and my continual metamorphosis into a better, more beautiful person. I can't help but think about the beauty of my God and his work within me. And when I step into a Protestant church masquerading as a seemingly benign structure - especially in our international church where I hear many languages spoken - I can't help but hear what eternity must sound like. One day every tribe, tongue, and nation will live in community, in the most beautiful and sensual place, before the most majestic, holy, and great God.
For all the pitfalls each strand of Christianity contains - and they are many - they each get something very right. We would all do well not only to reflect on our tendencies and vantage points, but to learn from others who are able to see and express truths which we often muddle.