Brian Zahnd is the founder and lead pastor of Word of Life Church, a Christian congregation located in the heartland of America in St. Joseph, Missouri.
We now have a church bell at Word of Life! I’m ridiculously excited about this. I’ve wanted a bell for several years and recently an old church bell was donated to us. We will “debut” our bell this Friday at our Thanksgiving Communion Service and Christmas Tree Lighting.
But let me tell you about me and the bells.
I grew up with church bells. My Baptist church had a bell. A group of old men were in charge of ringing it on Sunday mornings. They were quite serious about it. A few times when I was a small child they let me “help” ring the bell. I would hold onto the rope, be pulled off my feet, and the old men would have a good laugh. It’s a fond memory.
But somewhere along the way church bells began to disappear. They became antiquated. We moved to the suburbs, built our new non-descript utilitarian metal buildings and left the bells behind. Church bells were passé. When we built our church facility in 1996 it never entered my mind to have a bell. And I never thought a thing about not having a church bell.
Until I began traveling in Muslim countries…
Five times a day I would hear the adhan (the Muslim call to prayer). Eventually it dawned on me that what the adhan is to Islam the church bell is to Christianity—it’s a call to prayer.
But in the Christian-secular West we have lost the sound of the church bell. The sound of secularism is the silence of the church bell. Yes, I’m speaking metaphorically, but I think it’s an apt metaphor. What’s wrong with the West? We no longer hear the church bell. The bells have gone silent.
A few years ago I was in the Old City of Jerusalem on a Sunday morning when the bells began to ring. Bells from Orthodox, Catholic, Armenian, Anglican, Lutheran churches. The mighty deep bass bells from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A holy cacophony of sacred bells. It was wonderful! And it was strangely and deeply moving. The church bell is the sound of the Christian faith. (As surely as the adhan is the sound of Islam.) In the modern secular West we need to hear the Christian bells once again. Christ has risen! Ring the bells!
I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman cavalry choirs are singing
Be my mirror, my sword and shield
My missionaries in a foreign field
On that Sunday morning in Jerusalem I made up my mind that Word of Life would have to get a bell. And now we have one. It’s a humble bell, but a bell nonetheless. We will ring it on the hour. We will ring it when it’s time to pray. We will ring it on Sunday morning. We will ring it because Christ is risen!
Yeah, we’ve got a church bell and we’re gonna ring it!
The church bell is a pretty good metaphor of how the church should be public. The ringing of a church bell is a public act, but it’s not a political act. The church bell is a public call to prayer. Can the church once again be known as a prayerful community? I hope so. Tragically, the dominant expression of public Christianity over the past thirty years has been one of political partisanship. My critique of Christian political partisanship is not a call to quietism, but a call to transcend crass political rhetoric and bring a prophetic message from elsewhere. I hope for the day when Christians in America can be viewed as a prayerful, prophetic people and not just religious Republicans. I long for our public presence to be more like the beauty of chiming church bells and less like the ugliness of haranguing political ads.
A return to the church bell is an unabashed reach to the past. I’ve grown weary of an arrogant disdain for the sustaining traditions of the church. This is where I have a certain appreciation for the postmodern critique of modernity. The Enlightenment produced the modern article of faith that through empiricism every thing is getting better and better and we’re headed straight for utopia. Postmodernity does us a service by exposing this claim as fraudulent. Just because iPhones get better with technological progress doesn’t mean that life is necessarily getting better with technological progress. There is such a thing as ancient wisdom that should be revered and recovered. Presently I’m in recovery. I’m recovering from the hubris of modernity. I’m recovering patristic theology, the historic creeds, the Book of Common Prayer, the mystery of the sacraments, the beauty of liturgy. And church bells too.
The church bell we have is a recovered bell. It once rang above a church, but the church was abandoned and the bell was silenced. Now we’ve recovered the bell and put it back into service. Like the Apostles’ Creed. Like weekly Communion. Like the Friday Fast. Like the Book of Common Prayer. We are pressing into the future by reaching back to the past. This is the kind of counterintuitive wisdom that is characteristic of Christian mystery.
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
Ring them bells!