A Place For Christian Worship

A Place For Christian Worship August 29, 2022

A definition for a church building is “a place for Christian worship.” I have pondered this idea throughout my ministry. We tend to think we know what Christian worship is even when we have different ideas about it. But what is place? Protestants often say, “We can worship God anywhere.” I agree. But only up to a point. I disagree with the implication of claiming “I can worship God anywhere.” This assertion is only true in certain circumstances. Personal devotions immediately come to mind. Any personal meditation or prayer is worship. Yet, there is something still missing from these devotions. Other people are missing. Do we have a sacrament of Holy Communion celebrated alone? Or how about Baptism? Is that done alone? We can all imagine scenarios where this is possible. Buzz Aldrin’s ceremony on the Moon is an example. But extraordinary circumstances prove the rule.

Theology of Place

I am asked often, “Where do you serve?” I reply with the name of the church where I occupy the pulpit. Lay members do not get this question. They are asked, “where do you go to church?” Where. What an interesting word. It implies a destination, a gathering point if you will. “Where are you going? What will you do when you get there?”

Place matters in life. There are multiple levels of place in our lives. How possible answers are there to the question, “Where do you live?” The first is your mailing address. Or you could merely tell the street name, the name of the neighborhood, the city, or give a description of the geography. “I live in the mountains, or on the beach, or by the river.”

I think about this issue in The United Methodist Church right now. Churches that intend to leave the denomination want to keep their place. Why? If they can serve God anywhere why not go somewhere else? But it is not that simple, is it? We consider place important. The value of the real estate is not the issue. People invest themselves in places or worship. The place has a lot to do with identity. Who is worshipping is almost as important as who is worshipped.

Is the church building really meaningless? No, there are practical considerations. Place has everything to do with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Proximity to the neighbor must be realized before we can ever offer aid. The Samaritan goes to the injured man while the priest and the Levite purposefully move away from him.

Meaningful Space

Sacred space is an interesting term. A place has space to occupy. The items we fill the space with suits spiritual and psychological needs. Few worship actions are more moving than the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday. Removing all the trappings we usually see in church gives worshippers a shock. Many people are moved to tears. It gives us a spiritual insight.

What happens in sacred spaces? A lot of things. What should not happen in sacred spaces? This question is how we know a space is considered sacred. People often object to some programs, or meetings, or games being played in the Sanctuaries or special classes in their churches. I am guilty of this too. “Please not here,” I will say. Why not? What makes this room more important than the others? There is a fear that using the space for something other than worship will take away from later worship. We attach meaning to the space.

I visit the largely empty churches in Europe. Even though there are few worshippers now, over time these places took on a sanctity from the people who worshipped there. When Notre Dame caught fire, many Americans talked about this symbol of France and French Culture. I was more concerned no one was hurt. But I noticed the people of Paris gathering to watch and mourn were singing  Ave Maria and not La Marseillaise. The cathedral of Notre Dame is first and foremost a place for Christian worship.

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