Over the past two years, I have visited more churches than I think I have in my entire life previous to being a superintendent. I’ve now worshipped on Sunday morning in 63 of the 69 churches in the Grand Rapids district, so I’ve had lots of opportunities to reflect on “holy space.”
The church is not a building. The church is a community of believers gathered and called by the Holy Spirit to witness to the redemptive love of Jesus Christ in our world by shaping people of spiritual courage and moral power. The movement of the Spirit through the church is one of personal holiness and social holiness, as expressed in spiritual formation, nurture, evangelism, worship, mission, outreach and social justice. Most of all, the church is where love is spoken.
At the same time, the physical space where the people of God gather every week also says something about us as the church. After all, buildings do speak. In my experience, well cared for and planned worship spaces speak of holiness, awe, mystery, welcome, warmth, safety, grace, community and mission. People should be able to enter your worship space and instinctively know what your mission is as a congregation. They should also feel as if they have come home to God.
How do we as pastors and lay persons create an inviting, sacred worship space? I’ll start with what doesn’t work for me.
- A sanctuary that doubles as a storage shed for church junk does not incline me toward the sacred.
- A worship space where the screen completely covers the cross for the entire worship service leaves me wondering who or what we are really worshipping.
- A worship space that has not been cleaned since the previous Sunday or that has 3 burned out spotlights speaks of neglect rather than a respect for the holiness of the space.
- When no effort is made to include visual sacred images to draw me into God’s presence, I could just as well be in an auditorium or sports complex.
- When people with disabilities can’t even get into the sanctuary, the space feels exclusive rather than inclusive.
- If there are no visible signs directing people to the nursery or restrooms, I question whether the congregation expects or even desires visitors.
- When the same tired plastic flower arrangement is on the altar from year to year, I can only assume the congregation is tired as well.
In contrast, here’s what inspires and fills me with awe when I enter a worship space.
- The space is well ordered but is clearly not a museum. The sanctuary has a lived in feel, indicating that the building is not an end in itself but is used for ministry to the entire community.
- Stained glass windows, altars, communion tables and other sacred art express beauty and faith stories through symbols.
- There is evidence that children and youth play an integral role in the worship experience, perhaps through banners or children’s worship packets in the narthex.
- As soon as I enter the door, I am greeted warmly and with a smile, not only by the designated greeter, but by everyone!
- Every piece of furniture in the worship space has spiritual significance, contributing toward an atmosphere of serenity and peace.
- The carpet is not embarrassingly outdated but blends seamlessly into the décor of the rest of the worship space.
- The narthex, however spacious, serves as a gathering place but also as a transition from our everyday life to the holiness of worship.
First impressions can never be reclaimed. That goes for churches as well as individuals. When people enter your worship space for the first time, they wonder, “Could this be my church home? Will I feel safe here? Will I be able to grow in my faith here? Is this a place where I can discover and use my gifts to make a difference in the world? Could some of these people someday be among my best friends? Will I be ignored or welcomed? Is this church depressed or hope-filled? Is the Holy Spirit moving in this place?”
Certainly, we won’t all have the opportunity to build a new worship space during the course of our ministry. But the good news is that any worship space can be transformed into holy space that in invitational and compelling. How can you get started? I offer 4 suggestions.
- Do you want to know what your building says? Just ask your visitors. They’ll give you an honest assessment.
- If you want your worship space to be a reflection of your identity as a congregation, you have to have a vision and mission statement and a plan for ministry. Getting the cart before the horse doesn’t work.
- Form a worship space task force composed of long-time and new members. Share your faith stories. Then do several walk-throughs of the space, allowing God to speak to you. Using input from others, ask how this space helps or hinders ministry.
- Have the courage to do a makeover, whether slight or extreme. Don’t skimp on qualified architects, builders and artists to help you. Imagine what might happen if your building could sing a new song!
- Bring a group from your church to attend the Worship Workshop Live led by Marcia McFee on Saturday July 26, at Lake Harbor UMC in Muskegon. McFee co-led worship at General Conference this year and is one of the most creative worship designers in our country.