August 27, 2021
Transforming Sacred Space
I attended a memorial service for a friend recently. It was at a church with a fairly long history, with well-endowed financial resources, and with a beautiful hilltop site. I don’t know that I would want to place my membership there, but I do enjoy occasionally visiting there for one reason or another and taking time to admire and reflect upon the church’s architecture.
The original worship space for the congregation is itself a fairly large building, but as the congregation grew, they planned and constructed a larger sanctuary and kept the original one for smaller events and alternative services. The construction of the new sanctuary was completed in 1991. Unfortunately, a large earthquake created extensive damage in 1994, and repairs took two years. But it has since become again, except during the height of the pandemic of course, a vibrant worship space.
I arrived early for the memorial service and had an opportunity to just sit and view the worship space as the choir was rehearsing for the service. It is quite spacious, with high ceilings, open rafters, and seating that accommodates more than fifteen hundred worshippers. There are windows that allow in light and afford views of the outer surroundings of the church, although the large walls, and the high-tech screen, dominate the space. There is a large, wooden cross in the front of the space, and crosses are woven into the framing of the windows in creative ways. The organ pipes also offer a striking backdrop to the chancel area. It is an impressive sacred space.
And yet, with the perspective of having been there for thirty minutes with just the choir and a few family members present, what was so evident was how the sacred space came to life with the arrival of those who were coming to celebrate the life of someone they loved. The voices of greeting, the hugs exchanged, brought life. The person who had died loved Hawaii, and so people had been encouraged to wear “Hawaiian” clothing to the service. The colors, the movement, brought life to the space. The presence of the people enlivened the worship space.
The interaction between space and people is fascinating. The sacred spaces that we design are important. They set the stage for what will transpire. They welcome people and surround them with symbols of our faith. This attention to the space, to art, to the physical elements of liturgy is critical.
But without the people, it is just beautiful space. It becomes sacred as the people enter, as they interact with one another and with the space itself. Whether it is a small group gathered for prayer, or the larger worshipping congregation, what transforms the space, and truly makes it sacred, is the presence of people interacting with one another and with God.
August 20, 2021
The Sacredness of Space
It is a curious thing to worship in our sanctuary right now. Among the most readily recognizable items on these Sundays is the masks that everyone is wearing. These are not particularly religious objects, although they are statements about the love and care that we are committed to extending to one another. And, as I mentioned last week, the masks do add a certain color and life to the worship space.
The worship space – it is the same as before the pandemic began, and yet it is of course not the same. For in addition to the masks, there are now microphones and cameras in evidence, although we try to make them as inconspicuous as possible, for the purposes of continuing to include worshippers who join the worship celebration via Zoom.
The worship space is also different because there are currently far fewer people than before the pandemic began. Our in-person attendance is only a little more than fifty percent of what it was a year and a half ago. Now perhaps that is better than some churches, including of course those churches that haven’t yet taken the steps to re-open, but it is still striking to me to see the smaller numbers of people present. It is sort of like the usual attendance declines that one sees on the Sundays after Christmas or Easter. Of course, this is not just one Sunday, but our regular pattern for now.
And yet, we still have a total attendance, in-person and Zoom combined, which is about equal to our average on Zoom alone during the time when no in-person worship was happening. That means that roughly sixty percent of our attendance currently continues to join us through Zoom. Some of these are folks who live at a distance and who got reconnected to the church during the pandemic closure. Some of these are people who are not yet comfortable joining in-person activities, or who simply don’t choose to wear a mask in worship when they can leave it off in the comfort of their own home.
But what has been especially poignant for me is the expressions of gratitude for the fact that we reopened for in-person worship, and that we continue to offer that as an option, even with the wearing of masks. There is something important for these folks about not only being with one another but of also being together in the sacred space of the church.
For the first six or seven months of the pandemic closures, I guided our Zoom worship activities from our home. It was easy to do, relatively speaking. But then when Advent came, I went by myself and did my portions of worship from the church sanctuary. The responses were amazing. Person after person expressed joy at being able to see the worship space of our church, at once again feeling connected to the space, even if it was through seeing me on Zoom. The sacred space of the church is important to them, and they may or may not have realized how much they missed it.
As we had begun to emerge from the pandemic, only to now having taken some steps backwards, there were articles that appeared in various places which raised the question of how important our physical churches are, how essential our buildings are when we can be the church gathered online in one way or another. And yes, the church, the body of Christ, is the people, not the buildings. Yes, sometimes the buildings require a lot of upkeep, and the money could perhaps be spent elsewhere.
But there is something too that we miss out on when we are totally absent from the sacred space of our churches. There is the appeal to the senses when one sees the light of the stained-glass windows playing on the carpet and the seating. That lively light doesn’t translate real well through the cameras. There is the grandeur of the organ music, or the vitality of the piano accompaniment, that speaks in a different way, a felt way, that is different in-person than in hearing it through Zoom. There is something mystical about receiving communion in the sacred space of the church, that is just not quite there when we simply serve ourselves at home.
All of this is not to say that online worship is something negative, or less desirable. Online worship through Zoom has been essential for the life of our church throughout the pandemic, and continues to offer a special grace to those who still join us in that way on Sundays. But there is also something unique about the sacred space of the church. There is a feeling, an encounter, an experience, that is mediated by the space itself.
I still use Zoom for Bible study and other groups and meetings, in addition to our offering worship each week in that way. But I am also glad to enter the sacred space of the church building on Sunday mornings, for it has a profound impact upon my spirit.
August 13, 2021
Worship with our Whole Being
Protestant worship has traditionally been focused on the preaching of the Word. Much of the origins of that dynamic began with the Reformation and the translation of the Bible into the vernacular of the people. One no longer needed to know Latin to access the scriptures. While that was a critical step in opening up the Bible to all, and thus understanding and interpretation to any who chose to pursue such things, it tended to mean that churches would forgo other ways of experiencing God and would focus on the spoken word.
As some traditions, including the Puritans, then chose to focus on simplicity, worship spaces tended to be quite sparse, with little or no decoration. Part of the thinking was that visual stimuli would distract from paying attention to the proclamation of the spoken word.
The Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches, and others, saw the wisdom in continuing to offer multiple ways to access experiences of the presence of God. Sometimes that came as the interpretation of the scriptures remained the privilege of the clergy, but it was still a balance that was important.
Fortunately, today many churches have reclaimed more of a balance in worship, using words for proclamation and song, incorporating music in various ways, inviting people to be fully aware of stained-glass windows and other visual elements introduced into the worship space, and some have included movement, whether it be sacred dance or other forms of involvement of the whole body.
As we turn our focus to prayer within our worship celebration, we invite the participation of all through the sharing of joys and concerns, we encourage individual encounters with God through a time of silent prayer, and the leader shares the joys and concerns of all through a pastoral prayer. There is nothing real unique about this, but it is important to acknowledge that this is a three-fold way of experiencing prayer.
I have long worked to structure at least some Sunday messages as more than just offerings of words. This happens through viewing movie clips, through the use of multimedia presentations, even by means of interacting with people who are present (this is certainly easier with smaller congregations). It is good at least now and then to move the message time beyond just a spoken sermon.
As we celebrate communion, we have traditionally passed the bread and cup, and only had walk-up communion on special Sundays, as part of Fifth Sunday celebrations, and on Christmas Eve. But as we have worked to be as careful as possible, during this pandemic time, with how the elements are handled and served, we have moved to having walk-up communion every week, serving those at their seats who are unable to walk forward. This is nothing new for some traditions, but it is one more way of physically involving people in their worship experience. And I love to see the movement of the people, the colors of their clothes, and of their masks, together enlivening a part of worship that should definitely be filled with life.
As I wrote last week, all of this encourages and offers not a worship “service,” but an experiential worship “celebration.” And worshipping with our whole being allows God to indeed live and move within us.
August 6, 2021
When I grew up, and even into my earlier years in ministry, when we would come together at the church on Sunday mornings it would be to participate in the worship service. I never thought much about it, the characterization of worship as a “service.” It certainly implies at least a couple of meanings to us. For some it is our service to God, taking at least one hour, or perhaps two, to serve God through our presence in worship. For those who have leadership roles in the “service,” their gifts to God are those of preaching, or praying, or singing, or of serving communion and collecting the offering. This is service to the people, but also to God.
The issue that arises, or at least that arose for me, is that when we think of service, we think of either serving someone else, as a waitress or waiter does in a restaurant, or of being served ourselves, as in sitting there in the restaurant and having the food brought to us. But when we speak of the worship “service,” there are usually a limited number of people who are doing the “serving,” and a larger group that is being “served.” There is nothing particularly wrong with either role, and we all tend to fill one or the other at various times, but it seems to me now that with worship the idea of “serving” it to people just loses so much.
I began to reflect upon this a number of years ago when I read a book by Gordon Dragt entitled, One Foot Planted in the Center, the Other Dangling off the Edge. It is a book about transformation, about revisioning church life, about the importance and inclusion of the arts in the life of a church. He wrote of the importance he saw in speaking of worship not as a “service” but as a “celebration.”
I immediately took his thoughts to heart and changed how I refer to the worship time, speaking of it as a “celebration” in articles that I write, in Sunday messages if I refer to worship, and in how I list it on the Sunday worship bulletin. For years now the bulletin has proclaimed that people are at a “worship celebration.” I realize that people may or may not really see that designation after all this time, but if nothing else it serves as a weekly reminder to me that what I want to craft for Sunday is a “celebration.”
But it is more than just words, “service” versus “celebration.” This is a different way of doing worship. For me, “worship service” implies more of a passive role for many of the people. On the other hand, “worship celebration” means something that people are actively involved in, or at least are invited to be active in celebrating God, and life, and our relationships with God and one another.
A “worship celebration” is an experience, an encounter with God, something that moves our spirits, something that calls us to be engaged in the moment. A “worship celebration” is something which invites us to be involved with our whole being.
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