Friday, September 14, 2007

Shoes-Off in Churches?

I do like to write posts that reflect the Christian ethos of this blog. Naturally, not everybody who visits this blog is a Christian. But I would still like to hear what you think. If you are not a Christian, would you feel comfortable visiting a church where there was a no-shoes rule?

In many Asian religions, shoes-off is identified with reverance. In the temples of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism, shoes are removed as a sign of respect. For the most part, this custom is absent from Christianity. In fact, in many western churches, removing shoes would be considered disrespectful. There are exceptions to this norm. There is a tradition in Roman Catholicism of pilgrims going barefoot at certain shrines. This is quite common in Ireland. Shoes are removed in the churches of Ethiopian and Coptic Christianity. Also, the custom of shoes-off has been absorbed into the practice of some more recent missionary churches in Asian, in countries like Japan and India. There the custom is not for any theological reason, but simply a reflection of cultural norms. I must admit in Japan, there was something a little surreal, though delightful, about not wearing shoes in churches.

Personally, I am of the opinion that churches might do well to meet in homes rather than special buildings, in which case shoes-off might well be called for. However, most Protestant denominations make use of special buildings. Would it be appropriate for a congregation to require shoes off in its normal meeting place?

There are obvious practical reasons why removing shoes in churches might be a good idea. Firstly, churches invariably have really filthy carpets. If the church wants to keep its building clean and save money on carpet cleaning or replacements, a congregation in stocking feet or slippers would be a great help. Secondly, churches often have a lot of small children playing on the floor, so a shoe-free environment would be safer for them. Remarkably, many churches do not even require shoes-off in their creches. People in this country are rather slow to see that a baby-friendly environment is a shoeless one.

Being a fundamentalist Protestant, I am concerned to follow the Bible in how we 'do church'. Obviously, nowhere in the New Testament does it say that people must take their shoes-off in the meeting place of the church (the earliest Christians met in homes where they might well have taken their shoes off). Does this mean a congregation would be wrong to make it a rule? No, not at all. The Bible does not say that we should forbid people to smoke in church, but certainly a church should forbid people from doing so. It might be inappropriate to not let somebody in if they did not take their shoes off, but there is nothing wrong with having a sign requesting it or leaving a shoe-rack at the entrance.

One might argue that having a shoes-off rule would give the impression that the church building is a temple which is sacred in itself. Such an idea would be foreign to Christianity. On the other hand, though there is nothing special about the building in which a church meets, the worship and preaching that take place in the service are holy. Christians as a people are the temple of God, indwellt by the Holy Spirit and there worship together is a most blessed thing. Removing shoes would reflect the solemnity of the proceedings.

Another argument against such a practice would be that many churches contain a lot of elderly people who would find it difficult to remove their shoes. This is true. A church which has a congregation with an high average age would do better not to adopt such a practice. However, a lot of churches like Woodgreen Evangelical Church, which I attend, have very young congregations. The majority of people who attend my church would have little difficulty removing their shoes I am sure.

Many churches aspire to be 'seeker-friendly.' By this, they mean that they hope to make their church as welcoming as possible to visitors. Would having a shoes-off rule in the church run counter to this? I suggest not. Britain is a multi-cultural society. People are used to the idea that there are many different religions in the country with different customs. A lot of people know that if they visit a Mosque or an Hindu temple, they need to take their shoes-off and would not make a fuss about that. Many schools take their pupils on trips to those places. So a church which required shoes-off would not be such an alien concept today. Many people might find it more relaxed and comfortable.

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