The Church as a Thin Place: Some Implications

Part 9 of series:
Thin Places

In my last post in this series, I suggested that, from the point of view of the New Testament, the church is to be the world’s most significant thin place when Jesus is no longer present on earth in the flesh. To put it differently, in the time after the ascension of Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit, God has chosen to make himself known most of all through the church. Of course God is not limited in this way and can reveal himself in a plethora of means and places. But, in a very real sense, the church is to be the world’s preeminent thin place.

Of course, the “thin place” metaphor fits awkwardly here because the church isn’t really a place. It’s not even a vast collection of places so much as a vast community of people who often gather in a vast number of places. When I speak of the church as a thin place, I mean that God makes himself known through his people, both as they are gathered and as they are scattered in the world. Thus when my church in Boerne, Texas gathers for worship on Sunday, we are (or should be, at any rate) a thin place. When we go out into the world, we become several hundred thin places, at least in potential. We, and the other Christians in our town, are portable thin places, not unlike the Tabernacle in the Old Testament or, if you prefer, Jesus himself.

I wonder what would happen if we began to think of ourselves in this way. What do you think would happen if you thought of yourself as a thin place in the following circumstances?

• Interacting with your colleagues at work;
• Doing chores with your children;
• Having a leisurely dinner with your spouse or best friend;
• Talking with the clerk in the local convenience store;|
• etc. etc. etc.

What difference might it make if churches thought of their corporate life as a thin place, a place where people might interact in a profound way with the living God?

Let me answer this question with one quick thought. First, if churches saw their corporate life as a thin place, perhaps they’d have more times of quiet and even silence when they gather. When I was the Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, our worship services almost always included times of silence. Some were complete quiet; others were “covered” by instrumental music. I appreciated these quiet times and used them to commune with the Lord. There were “thin times” for me, if you will.

The “thin” sanctuary of Irvine Presbyterian Church

Then, in 2000, I took a three-month sabbatical. During that time I visited many churches in the Orange County area. These were all impressive. Most were larger than Irvine Presbyterian. A few were megachurches. All included top-notch music and excellent preaching. But none – literally, none – of these churches left time for quiet in their worship gatherings. They were joyous, exuberant, God-honoring, and consistently loud.

Now I am not suggesting that thin places have to be quiet. God can surely make himself known in the midst of and even through noise. (Remember the epiphany on Mt. Sinai, for example: thunder, lightening, trumpet blasts, etc.) But, surely, there should be a time for God’s people to be quiet together so that they might hear the “still, small voice” of the Lord, both individually and corporately.

A church that thought of itself as a thin place would, I believe, become more intentional about creating times of quiet for people. It might include such times in corporate worship on a regular basis. Or it might host an evening prayer service with lots of quiet. Or it might sponsor a silent retreat. Or it might construct a prayer garden where people could wait on the Lord. Or . . . you name it (literally, if you wish, by leaving a comment).

Tomorrow I’ll have more to say about some practical implications of a church as a thin place.

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  • Anonymous

    As someone who tends to be drawn more to contemplative worship, I love what you’re saying about the need for quiet in our churches. In education we recognize the reality of different learning styles, but seldom do churches acknowledge the reality of differing worship styles. How often have I heard worshippers castigated by exuberant leaders for not clapping their hands during the 25th repetition of the chorus ditty. The more I think about intentional quiet in church, the more I think how awkward that would seem to most modern Christians. But how vital. Good point.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I have thought of the curious juxtaposition in the Psalms, where 46:10 reads “Be still and know that I am God” and then, two verses later, 47:1 reads “Clap your hands, all you peoples, shout to God with loud songs of joy.” It seems that we don’t often get the balance or diversity of Christian worship.

  • June Dempsey

    I have always savored the quiet times in worship and find in this day it is not even easy to find the silence before worship begins.   Even so that indicates love and joy in a congregation.    I remember the days when the church doors were open inviting any passerby to enter for prayer and meditation.   My first experience being when I was a child and during one of my walks with my grandmother we entered a neighborhood church and sat in silence.   Many times since I have done so, that is, until it became necessary for the doors to be locked due to vandalism.   

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, June.  What wonderful memories!