Where we worship

Twice a year, the property committee at my church hosts church “work days,” and parishioners come to work on church upkeep tasks for a few hours. Our church isn’t enormous, but it’s big enough (I heard an estimate that it’s about the size of 10 houses), and from what I hear, there’s always plenty to do.

About a week ago, I went to the fall work day, my first, along with a motley crew of miscellaneous parishioners, property committee members, and the rector. We washed walls and dusted shelves and changed lightbulbs, sanitized handrails and cleaned lint from vents and filled in pew cracks and scratches with wood stain. We taped and wiped and tightened and brushed. A couple of the parish children sharpened every single pew pencil.

Scratch-and-dent repair requires a different sort of kneeling.

There’s something sacred in labor—I think of Brother Lawrence washing dishes—and something special about working in my own church building. It connects me to the building-part, the shell-part of the church. I can walk through the building and think, “That’s the wall I washed,” “That’s the pew I polished,” “That’s where the mops are kept.” This connection is not entirely different from the getting-to-know-you process in a new apartment or house—that moment when you realize you can navigate in the dark; the house is deep in your mind and your muscles.

Shane Claiborne reminds us, helpfully and truthfully, that “the church is not an institution, a meeting, or a building. It is not something we go to. The church is something we are — an organism, not an organization.” In many ways, I see Shane Claiborne as a prophetic figure. He’s willing to challenge the Church to live the Gospel even in its radical, frightening dimensions. And he’s right about the Church not being a building.

But I’m not ready to throw out the building altogether.

In Ian Morgan Cron’s blog post, “Can’t Contemporary Worship Value Authenticity and Dignity?” (which is a totally interesting question that sort of gets at what I’m trying to do with this blog, only in a single post), a commenter raised the question of resources—often the way our churches are shaped shape how we worship. Is there an organ? A place for a choir? A center aisle? What are the acoustics like? Where is the pulpit, and how set-apart is it? Is there an altar? Is the baptismal font a basin or a pool?

There are churches in all kinds of spaces—traditional country chapels, great cathedrals, theatres, converted shopping malls. Shrine Mont, the cathedral of the Diocese of Virginia, is an open-air church in the woods.

Now, I’m entirely confident that God can be in any space, from a house church (where two or three are gathered, anyone?) to the side of a mountain to St. Peter’s Basilica, but I’m also convinced that these spaces have a really significant role to play in worship.

What do these spaces tell us about how the congregations think about God? There are different facets of God reflected in all these spaces—the magnificent creator God of the natural world, God the maker of humans who give back the best of culture and intellect with soaring cathedral architecture, God who is still part of contemporary life and who can be worshiped with screens and videos as well as with choirs and incense, God who empowers small groups meeting secretly in great danger.

There are so many sides of God to be explored, and different denominations and congregations take different approaches. Variety is good—the spice of life, after all.

But what about when church buildings have to be left? This happens—a congregation outgrows its space, or can no longer afford to keep it up, or is forced out due to any number of circumstances. It’s a regular enough occurrence. What happens when congregational identity is etched in the stained glass windows, in the wood stain on the pews and the coffee stains in the parish hall carpeting?

In “Don’t Occupy Your Church Buildings,” at Two Friars and a Fool, “Brekke” offers multi-use, multi-congregation, even multi-religion worship space as an alternative for churches who can’t support their own building. It makes sense. There’s another (non-Episcopal) congregation that worships in our building on Sunday afternoons. I wonder, though, what a really ecumenical space would look like. What happens when worship styles and worship spaces aren’t neatly matched?

I suppose this happens already—there are contemporary services in traditional church buildings, and traditional services in utility spaces. Many congregations hold multiple services in multiple styles. God’s people can fit in God’s church no matter the shape or size. It’s kind of a cool thing, actually, a sort of unexpected juxtaposition. I like unexpected juxtapositions.

Even so, I can’t escape the feeling that I’m shaped by the aisles and pews, by my seat in the chancel and the stained-glass windows I face, by the doors I use and stairs I climb, by the tables in the parish hall and the couches in the bishop’s parlor. It’s an interesting thought, anyway.

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What is your church worship space like? How does the space interact with the style of worship? With your experience of worship? Do you share with any other worship communities?

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