The Church as a Thin Place: Dreams and Visions

Part 10 of series:
Thin Places

In yesterday’s post, I began reflecting in a more practical way on the church as a thin place. Today I want to continue these reflections, sharing a few of my dreams and visions for the church.

The Church as a Place of Prayer for All Peoples

In the Old Testament, the Temple was the supreme place of prayer for the Israelites. But in some prophetic passages, a more expansive vision appeared. Consider, for example, Isaiah 56:7, which speaks of the Temple as a “house of prayer for all peoples.”

The church, it seems to me, should be such a place, not just accidentally, but intentionally. Yes, I know most churches are theoretically open to all kinds of people. But, in fact, most churches do not make an effort to invite people to pray with them.

I struggled with this fact as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Along the way, my fellow leaders and I made some changes that were meant to welcome all people to join us in prayer. For example, at some point we realized that we prayed The Lord’s Prayer every week, but nowhere provided the text for those who didn’t know. So we began printing and projecting The Lord’s Prayer for the sake of our guests. We also closed every service with an invitation for people to come forward for prayer with an elder or deacon. During my sixteen years at Irvine, we prayed for thousands of people in this way.

Daily Prayer

But I had other dreams, dreams that I was not able to realize when God called me away to Texas. One of these dreams was to do as many more liturgical churches do, and offer morning and evening prayer every day. Our form of prayer wouldn’t necessarily be as structured as one would find in a Catholic or Episcopal church. In fact, I thought it would be interesting to vary the menu quite a bit. Yet, with utter consistency, we would offer a short prayer service very day, perhaps at 7:00 in the morning and 7:00 in the evening. This would be intended, not just for church members, but for people in the community. We would say to our neighbors: “If ever you feel like you want to pray, or if every you need somebody to pray for you, or if you just want to sit in quiet while others are praying, come join us. You are always welcome. We are here for you because God is here for you.”

Adding twelve prayer services a week (Monday – Saturday) would have taken some organizational work, but it would have been well worth it. I figured that the pastors (we had three and a half pastors at that time) would lead some of these prayer times, but not all. Others would be led by lay leaders, including non-ordained staff, elders, deacons, and others. We’d always have at least two people present, preferably a man and a woman. The prayer time would last around fifteen minutes, though people would be invited to remain for quiet prayer if they wished.

I tried to get my fellow leaders to be excited about this idea, but, frankly, we had too much going on to give this vision the attention it needed. I sometimes thought that offering prayer of this sort should be at the heart of any church’s mission, but I didn’t press the point, right or wrong. It’s certainly easy to see how such a practice of daily prayer would help a church be a thin place, a place where people encounter God.

A Prayer Chapel

I had also hoped that, someday, Irvine Presbyterian Church would build a prayer chapel that could be open all day. This would be different from the chapel that was part of our master plan, a building that would be suitable for small weddings, memorial services, and so on. The prayer chapel would be quite small, designed so that it could remain unlocked without continual supervision. Given the weather in Southern California, this could have been a prayer garden, though we didn’t have much space for something like this.

I realized that a prayer chapel such as I envisioned would create lots of challenges, since it would be open and usually unsupervised. But I had hope that, in time, we could build such a space and offer it to our community as a place of quite prayer. Many on our church building committee were favorable to this idea.

Programmatic realities took precedence, so we built an administration building with a youth center instead. I think this was the right choice, and I supported it completely. But I never gave up the hope that, someday, we might build a place of prayer for our community, either a chapel or a garden.

The “Holey” Church

Today, my dreams and visions for the church have more to do with what the church does while dispersed in the world than with what it does while gathered together for prayer, worship, discipleship, and service. I don’t in any way wish to disparage the importance of the church gathered. But, in my role with Laity Lodge, I’m more invested in the church scattered.

Thus I want to revisit something I wrote about in my last post, the vision of the church as a collection of thin places out in the world. If you think along the lines of the thin place model, with the earth and heaven being separated by some sort of thick barrier, then the people of God are millions of thin places in the barrier. Or, to mix metaphors, we are like holes in the Swiss cheese barrier between the earthly and the divine. The church would be, pardon the bad pun, a “holey” church, a church of holes through which God’s presence would be experienced.

So, though I’m all in favor of churches providing spaces for people to experience God, I’m even more excited about the idea of Christians living in the world in such a way that people don’t even have to go to a church facility or a retreat center to sense the presence of God.

In my next post I want to offer some theological reflections on the notion of thin places, and share some hesitations I have about this metaphor.

  • Ann Phillips

    Our church built a small room on the office building intended as a prayer chapel that would remain open.  Unfortunately it was seldom used for that purpose and was also vandalized more than once.  It was repurposed as a waiting room for our counseling center, in addition to its original purpose.  I think it is no longer left open 24/7 though, due to the vandalism.


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