by Greg Alms
Church bells seem an anachronism in today’s world. Church goers come from far distances and can’t hear the bells ringing, calling them to worship. That’s what Twitter and Facebook and email are for. The hymns that are often played at noon or 6:00 p.m. can’t be heard in the rush of traffic or through the sealed air-conditioned cars buzzing past. But church bells can do one thing: It helps us think about the church’s relationship to the world around her.
One of the most pressing issues of our time (and really anytime) for the church is how to relate the culture and world that surrounds us. The New Testament counsels us both to flee the things of the world (1 John 2;15) and to engage the world (Acts 1:8). The world is both the evil haunt of Satan (John 12:31) and the precious object of God’s redeeming love (John 12: 47). The church both conquers the world (1 John 5:4) and evangelizes the world (Matt. 28:20). This question is all the more urgent for us when society around us is less and less Christian and more and more unfriendly to Christianity. What are we to do? Flee the world or save it?
The answer lies in the example of church bells. Church bells do two things. First, they call Christians to abandon the world and assemble for worship. They call out us to flee our normal routines, our day to day activities, and come to where Christ is present in mercy and life and join with angels and archangels in the feast that has no end. We are called out of the world to be the church and receive forgiveness from our crucified Savior. That is what the word “church” means in Greek. “Ecclesia” literally means “called out.” We abandon the world to be united to Jesus.
But church bells do something else. They proclaim the message and existence of the church out into the world. There is an LCMS church in my area in (Augustana in Hickory, N.C.) that was once in the middle of farmland and pastures. It is now next door to a big shopping mall and surrounded by fast food stores and a busy highway. It has church bells and a carillon, and if you go at the right time you can sit in the drive-thru at Wendy’s and hum along to “A Mighty Fortress is our God” or “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” This is a picture of what the church is in the world. Bells call Christians both to flee the world and to participate in the world. The worldliness and fallenness “out there” is precisely where the church ought to be loud and joyful and insistent with her message.
Ultimately Christians do both: Flee the world and connect with the world. But we flee the world to save it. God calls us out of the world into the communion of the church to save us. The world is passing away, but there is a new world right in the midst of this dying place, the church, where Christ crucified is present and given as gift. This message and life is what the church engages the world with: new life right here in your midst.
This is not easy. Ringing bells in this noisy culture we live in can seem futile. The cars rush past with their windows up. But we keep ringing for God is calling sinners to His church and the sweet music of the Gospel never fails to do its work.