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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sacred Space 1

Temple or Meetinghouse?

I’m thinking about space. Not really about “outer-space” with starships, x-wing fighters and all that (though sometimes my family and friends think I‘m a bit spacey), but worship space. As our congregation begins to plan and plot how to remodel and renovate our worship area (Nave and Sanctuary for you liturgy-Nazis), I am going to think out-loud here a bit.

It seems to me that there are two major extremes with regard to worship space. On the one hand, there are those with a heavy sacerdotal bent who look on the worship area as something like the divinely instituted Temple. That’s tempting mainly because of the depth of reverence and awe that such a thing evokes. I once visited a Serbian Orthodox Church years ago. As I went through the doors I still remember being struck by a heart-pounding anticipation that came on me all of a suddenly, that I was entering into the august presence of God. There was something about the “otherness” of the Nave, the iconostasis, the smell, the brilliance as the lights gleamed off of the gold, that caused Isaiah 6 to break into my consciousness in a fresh and lively way.

On the other hand, there is the more puritan/Presbyterian position that looks at the worship space as simply a meetinghouse. A place where God’s people providentially gather for mutual encouragement, instruction and worship. It’s not a place that is “sacred” in and of itself. One’s prayers are no more heard there than anywhere else a believer happens to pray. God is no more there than anywhere else a Christian happens to be. The value of this way of thinking is two-fold. First, it reminds us that we no longer have a temple on earth, that Christ is our Temple (John 2.19-21), and that being united to Him, the Church, as a living entity and body of Christ, is that Temple on earth. Secondly, this stance helps God’s people to remember that worship can rightly go on wherever we gather in the name of Christ. In caves, out on the west Texas plains, in a bombed-out structure, and that He attends to His people anywhere.

There are strengths and weaknesses to both positions. I have already mentioned a few of the strengths, so here is a sample of weaknesses. In the one camp, the place becomes over-exalted and can cause God’s people to become “building-focused” where supposedly righteous and holy and Christian things can only happen at the Church building. That’s not a Roman Catholic problem, because I see it with Protestants and evangelicals all the time. When Christian programs are piled on at the building, and people act as if the real Christian things are only the things that happen there. In the other camp comes flippancy in construction and style, as well as levity and entertainment-minded frivolity that consume a congregation’s “worship.” This direction increasingly leans in a Docetic and Gnostic course, by emphasizing a disembodiment of worship and demeaning the importance of the physical in the “fear of the LORD.”

How can we see our way through this? In what ways, especially as Protestants and Evangelicals, can we reclaim the notion of “otherness” while keeping the beautiful cosmos-wide aspect of God’s rulership and worship? Are there ways to joyfully acknowledge the importance of the physical in the worship of God (especially with regard to space) while not losing our grip on how worship transcends our creatureliness?

I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

More next week.



Ken Pierce said...

Michael, interesting comments and thanks for them.

I definitely tend more towards the plain Presbyterian 4 walls and a sermon type meetinghouse, but I would hasten to add that God is "more there" than he is anywhere else, not because of the building, but because of the promise that where two or three gather in Christ's name, there he is in their midst.

In other words, to my thinking, worship makes a place "more holy," while it is happening, just as the theophany of God rendered the ground around the burning bush holy.

Jeff Smith said...

I agree with Mr. Pierce, above. But I would add that, just as our attire is a communication about ourselves and the event(s) for which we dress on a given day, so a building's design is inescapably a communication about its purposes and how its observers and occupants relate to such purposes.

If God so prospers a church to construct a building in which to worship and undertake various forms of ministry, the building inescapably functions as a public statement about that church. By association, it inescapably functions as a public statement about the functions of that church (God and His service), and by extension, about God Himself.

Sessions, diaconates, and building committees need to use good judgment in allocating precious financial and other resources. That said, I do not think worshiping in the cheapest or ugliest possible building brings honor to God or blessing to the surrounding community.

Mike Philliber said...

F.S. posted this comment on Facebook: "I think many of the churches we are seeing in our time today reflect a sense of the temporary. It seems many churches don't want to invest in any kind of long lasting building because, well, the rapture is coming any minute....i think this is misguided. An established congregation should be well established in the community they serve, and a building made to last speaks volumes to a community."

Then A.M.G. posted this: "Very thought-provoking. I remember a time when I thought the building doesn't matter at all. In a sense it doesn't, but in a sense it does reflect our thinking about worship."

Kyle Oliphint said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kyle Oliphint said...

No neutrality, not in anything. As Mr. Smith wrote, our buildings communicate something.
I love that you are asking the question.
As we thought about our building and expanding our building, we thought about what our building said about us, but more importantly, what it said about the God we said we worshiped. This drove our thinking. We thought about vision (literal vision, what we saw, where our eyes were directed when we entered the worship space). So our ceiling draws our eyes up. The accouterments representing God's means of grace are front and center. The positioning of the lights, the tone/brightness and direction were considered.
Secondly, we thought about our ears; hearing the Word; the hymns; the responsive readings, words of institution, etc. so we invested in the acoustics of the room, which inevitably informed or shaped the 'design'.
We wanted to acknowledge that we were not simply going to occupy the room, but we were going to be about an eternal function in the room and design the best we could, accordingly.
Who knows whether we got it right? But it was exhilarating to think, pray and talk about it.

RichardGoodrich said...

I am enjoying this. I hope someday our little metal office building of 36+ years might be able to be traded for something else. I suspect the answer is always somewhere between the two extremes presented.

However, I really resonated with Kyle's observations.