The “Chocolate Church,” said the sign we encountered on a trip to coastal Maine last summer. Although there is no denomination by that name, I know some folks who would be sorely tempted to become members were it to exist.

As we turned a corner, there it was, an imposing structure with steeples and spires, adorned with Victorian gingerbread. But it wasn’t the pretty, postcard white we associate with New England churches. It was, instead, a luscious, milk-chocolate brown.

The building, no longer home to a congregation, is now used as a community arts center and a performance hall. Across the country, former church buildings have been claimed for other purposes—a used bookstore, a condominium complex, an auction barn, and even a police station-cum-jail house.

Of course, churches are now meeting in some unlikely sites. Movie theaters, roller rinks, garages, dance halls, and even barrooms have accommodated thriving, vital churches. Church planters are notorious for their ingenuity and creativity. Who knows? Someday somebody may transform a chocolate factory into a church.

I keep thinking about what happened to the Chocolate Church. Here are some of my musings:

First, the experience points up the need to distinguish between the church building and the church, composed of the people of faith who meet there. Worship, witness, teaching, fellowship, and other ministry functions can indeed occur in any sort of building.

Second, that the Chocolate Church became an arts center for the community only after the church moved out symbolizes the notion that the church and the arts are incompatible. Many churches are indifferent or even hostile to the arts. But historically, the Christian church fostered the arts and saw its faith powerfully reflected ...

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