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Religion Library: Protestantism

Sacred Space

Written by: Ted Vial

A sacrament is usually understood as a means of grace; it is an effective channel of divine action. An ordinance, on the other hand, is a human action, a sign or testimony of one's belief. Many Protestants partake in the Lord's Supper because they believe in the forgiveness of sin that was accomplished in Jesus' death on the cross, and sharing the Lord's Supper is a sign of this belief; it does not itself offer forgiveness. Protestants who reject infant baptism do so in part because they believe the individual must make a statement of faith, and that baptism then becomes the public testimony of faith. Thus Protestants view these sacraments as physical manifestations of the verbal promises of God, to which they cling.

These differences are visible in many Protestant sanctuaries. The worship space of Protestants is organized to emphasize the centrality of hearing the word of God. Most conservative Protestant groups have the pulpit in the center of the platform facing the people, thus indicating the centrality of the preaching of the scripture. The altar is often referred to as the Lord's Table, thus eliminating the idea of sacrifice associated with the Roman Catholic liturgy and emphasizing the memorial aspect of much Reformed thinking. For many Protestant churches outside of Lutheran or Anglican traditions, the Lord's Table is below the elevated pulpit or even off to the side of the sanctuary. In any case, it is viewed as another opportunity to experience and trust God's promise of forgiveness, and it requires the congregation's active understanding and participation.

Baptism, a practice of using water to symbolize the washing away of sin, can be done by aspersion (sprinkling water on the head), affusion (pouring water over the head), immersion (partial submersion underwater), or submersion (full submersion under water). Many denominations allow any form of baptism. Some conservative churches practice submersion exclusively, believing it to be modeled on Jesus' baptism by John the Baptist in the Jordan River and therefore more scriptural. These churches often have baptismal tanks near the sanctuary for this purpose.

Church buildings have often reflected the architectural trends of the day. Churches have been built in Romanesque, Gothic, and neo-classical styles. In the 19th century there was a trend to build churches on the model of round theaters with a stage front and center to facilitate revival preaching. Many contemporary churches continue to follow this model, especially larger ones. Sanctuaries built in recent years often resemble an amphitheater with a stage in front, and frequently have room for rock bands and screens for PowerPoint presentations. Many churches today get their start as "house churches," small gatherings in private homes that are modeled on the practice of early Christians. Other small churches rent storefronts in cities as a relatively inexpensive and accessible venue.

Study Questions:
1.     How did iconoclasm change the appearance of sacred space?
2.     How did Luther's understanding of sacred space differ from Zwingli's?
3.     What is the purpose of Protestant sacred space? 
4.     How are contemporary churches designed?


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