Last summer my family took a trip to China. One of my favorite experiences was visiting an incredible Buddhist temple we encountered in the busy center of Chengdu, a city of 14 million people (!!). The day we visited the temple was scorching, and the smog was so thick you could taste it. We walked several blocks from our hotel along wide streets crowded with cars, bicycles and motorbikes, well dressed women and sidewalk merchants. Thanks to my exceptional navigational skills, we found the temple concealed inside a walled compound stretching over several acres. At the gate, we were charged a small fee to enter.
Once inside, we discovered a different world. Near the entry were several Buddha statues behind glass (see photo in my last post). A container where incense could be burned was centrally located. Beyond this entry area were pockets of gardens with walkways, sitting areas and fountains. The compound included a tea house for snacks and chess playing, a small shop where one could purchase religious objects, open air tai chi classes and, in a back corner, an outdoor sanctuary where we stumbled on a worship service being conducted by brightly dressed monks.
It dawns on me now that this sacred space was multi-purpose and delightfully public. Although the small fee was required, it was accessible to families with children, people seeking exercise, recreation, private prayer and fresh air, as well as formal worship. All these things could go on at one time. There were very few walls.
What would it be like if our churches in the future felt more like sacred public space? Instead of fenced off Sunday School playgrounds and locked doors, the community might find open space, mixed use facilities and quiet in the midst of a busy world. Anyone could come, religious or not. And there would be a lot less walls.
I wouldn’t be able to imagine it if I hadn’t seen it in Chengdu.