What if churches were temples instead of programs?

What if churches were temples instead of programs? May 13, 2015
"St. Ignatius' Altar in Rome," Lawrence OP, Flickr C.C.
“St. Ignatius’ Altar in Rome,” Lawrence OP, Flickr C.C.

The latest buzz on the Christian internet is the Pew research report about Christianity’s decline in America. Mainline Christian denominations have imploded the most dramatically. I’m sure that many of my fellow Methodist pastors and bureaucrats are wringing their hands about these numbers. What’s the solution? More polished audiovisual resources for sermon series, more exotic VBS packages, church basketball leagues? Or what if we went a completely different route? What if churches actually felt holy when you walked into them? What if they felt like temples instead of programs?

I was talking with a student a couple of months ago. She grew up Methodist and is currently dabbling in Catholicism. I told her that I would probably go Catholic if I ever determined that I was called to leave ordained ministry behind. What we both love about the Catholic mass is its utter lack of programming. Sure there are meticulous rules about how it needs to happen to preserve its holiness, but there’s no anxiety about making it accessible or attractive. We say the same damn thing every week. Children sit with their parents and cry as loud as they want. Whenever I drive across the causeway bridge to attend the Monday mass at St. Joseph’s Abbey, I feel like I’m “home” in a way that I never have felt listening to overwrought Jesus praise songs.

Sometimes the priest has a beautiful voice when he chants, “Through him and with him and in him,” but sometimes his voice cracks. The homilies are plain at best and usually quite dull. But I’m not really listening to the priest’s words. I’m closing my eyes and enjoying the real presence of Christ. The absence of anxious energy in the room has left space for me to palpably encounter this presence. Queer Catholic priest James Alison describes this in his Broken Hearts and New Creations:

There seems to me to be something quite wonderful about this, the quiet, serene, relaxedness, the lack of self-consciousness about Catholic worship, because we all know that Jesus is ‘just there,’ giving himself for us and inviting us in, and that he’s bigger than the flakiness of so many of our liturgies and the idiocy of so many of our homilies, and he’s obviously bigger and better than the flawed-ness of our priests, and, of course, of ourselves. [7]

The Catholics don’t do stewardship campaigns. They don’t start off their worship with the four most crucial announcements of service projects that desperately need volunteers. They don’t have sermon series with special logos or weekly opening video clips. They don’t have to make tough decisions about whether the children’s choir or the gleaning project will get the primary real estate in the worship bulletin on a particular week.

We Protestants have had every semblance of holiness about our worship space swallowed up by the practical. Nobody would ever think to kneel and cross themselves every time they pass in front of the altar. What if our sanctuaries were actually temples? What if it felt very natural for people to come into the room during the week and kneel with their eyes closed just to spend some time with Jesus? We may not grow exponentially, but we would be creating a distinctively sacred space in a capitalist culture where all space has become utilitarian and transactional.

I’m not sure exactly how to create a “temple feel” in a church, but maybe that’s part of the issue. Maybe it’s not something we can do, but it’s more a matter of what we don’t do. Maybe it’s a matter of emptying and surrendering rather than trying harder. Trying so hard all the time fosters anxiety. I really think the greatest factor in church decline is anxiety about church decline and all the ways that anxiety churns up a restless ambiance.

I think a good starting place is to establish a daily rhythm of prayer in the physical space of our churches. Instead of spending every last second of our days worrying and planning, what if we decided that we would go into our worship spaces every day to pray in the morning, at noon, and in the afternoon before we leave? What if instead of doing “Lordweejuz…” type prayers, we actually followed a standard liturgy that we could stumble through when we’re feeling really uncreative and exhausted.

I don’t know if it will grow churches or not, but I have a feeling I’m not the only one who’s looking for a temple that is a place for being instead of doing. Maybe it’s worth considering how to design (or undesign) our church sanctuaries to actually be sanctuaries.

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  • summers-lad

    This piece prompted various different thoughts in me, mostly not worth writing, but here are a few.

    A certain cottage in central Scotland will always be a holy place for me, because I took part in Scripture Union camps there for 19 years. http://www.scottishbooktrust.com/blairvaich-back-to-the-future
    A specific point on the footpath round Loch an Eilean in the Highlands will also remain holy because Jesus suddenly met me there when I was trying to handle a burning rage. Bethel was holy to Jacob because God was there. Sometimes our worship, our work, our service helps to make a place holy; sometimes it is God’s action alone. I’m not sure if church buildings have a greater claim to be holy places than anywhere else, but then I come from a variety of traditions, none of which place a great emphasis on the building.
    I agree with you about needing a place for being rather than doing, but the way I’m built (which is probably different from you) I don’t like repetition. I hear what people say who like liturgy – C S Lewis, for example, wrote that the predictability of the Anglican service meant he knew what was coming so he could focus on God – but I think it would bore me pretty soon. (I got equally bored with singing the same “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs over and over again, which is one reason why I’m no longer in that kind of church.) Certainly we all need to return to spiritual base camp from time to time, to be refreshed and renewed, but I’m not sure a standard liturgy would do it for me. I would welcome any thoughts or advice on this.

    • That’s a fair point.

    • Julie

      I think you might have sort of found your answer. You don’t depend on a church building or the liturgy to be the only holy place. You understand that while church worship can be a sanctuary, what we learn there can light up the whole world in its holiness. I think that we can carry that stillness out into new experiences and in that way it will never become boring.

      • summers-lad

        Thank you for your reply and encouragement – much appreciated.

    • Janet

      It depends on why we worship. If worship is service of God, which it is, to ask what it does for me is the wrong question. The right question is if it’s right worship.


  • lollardheretic

    I agree. One of th most moving religious experiences I’ve ever had was in the prayer room in St. Peter’s in the Vatican. In that whole church I saw what human art touched by God meant in visceral form. I wept at th Pieta, in the prayer room, just in general. Beauty is a good way to access God. But also there, there was just a sense of God there. I can’t quite put it to words. Some of it was time. There was a peaceful melancholy of millenia and more ceremonies, services, prayers. They were so present that it was like humidity filling the air. I felt something similar, though not quite as strong, in Notre Dame in Paris, and in the cathedral at York in England, and at St. Paul’s in London. In St. Paul’s it was also the sense of history that loomed there.

  • ceejaygee

    If the kneelers were added back in our sanctuary, and kneeling reverently in prayer before the service begins was our custom, I think it would help the whole atmosphere to be more worshipful. When I switched from the Baptist church to the Episcopal church, I was struck by how holy the Sunday morning service seemed compared to the irreverent noise of talking and laughing I’d experienced preceding the worship service in my previous church.

  • Brenda NP

    You make the assumption in your piece that the Catholics are the only ones who have liturgy. so do Lutherans and Anglicans. I speak as a Lutheran pastor. And the liturgy is not exactly the same every Sunday, even in the Catholic church. It has a rhythm, and different facets of the diamond which is the church calendar which governs the weekly propers which ensures we emphasize all aspects of the life of Christ and his ministry throughout a calendar year, are emphasized each week. And it is true; when we create space for regular prayer in our sanctuaries, layers and layers of the prayers of the saints almost become palpable.

    • One of the reasons I am a Lutheran is the prevalence of liturgical worship. I leave the service knowing that I have actively worshiped. I also feel connected with Christians throughout the centuries since the order of worship is base on a rite that has been in use for around 1,700 years. The same order of worship is used in the Catholic and Episcopal Churches as well. I had a chance to look through a Methodist hymnal several years ago and noticed the the order of worship was the same as one of the Lutheran settings. The main difference being the Lutheran liturgy is chanted and the Methodist was spoken,

    • You’re right. I shouldn’t conflate all of Protestantism with the low-church evangelicalism I grew up with. I realize that the liturgy is not exactly the same, but I like saying, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” every week before communion.

  • Janet

    I hate to tell you this, but we do actually have stewardship campaigns. As long as we have buildings, and you can see that the buildings are optimal, although not essential, we will have to have stewardship campaigns. However, they are kept in their place. AMDG

    • I’m guessing you’re Catholic. Do you have slick promotional videos in the middle of mass for your stewardship campaigns? That’s the part that gets me. When worship is interrupted by anxious marketing.

      • Janet

        I’m not only Catholic, but I am a parish secretary, so every time I’ve started to answer this, the doorbell or the phone rang.

        Once a year, we have the Bishop’s Appeal to support the diocese and there is a video in place of the homily. I will say that in the parish where I attend Mass, where they have a members that can support the parish, they did not show the film, but just announced the appeal at the time for announcements after Mass.

        I think most parishes have a Sunday once a year when, at the homily, the priests talks about making a financial commitment for the year–no video presentations.

        I also wanted to mention that I worked for 8 years at a protestant seminary where there were a lot of UMC students, and I had to interview them when they came in and when they graduated. I think I interviewed hundreds over the years, and most of them said that they did not plan to use the order of worship–is that what it’s called? It’s been two years and I have an old brain. I think that’s significant given the topic of your post. Good post, btw.

        AMDG, Janet

  • Gregory Nelson

    There is this train of thought that goes like this; Real change only comes as a result of great crises which make it obvious that something truly needs to be changed. I guess that is true, but it feels like a cop-out, doesn’t it?; a way of saying. ‘Don’t worry about it. When it gets bad enough it will change.”
    Until the real change comes those who see the need for course corrections can feel as if they are on a party train with the knowledge that the bridge ahead is out (Rohr’s metaphor).
    We tell people about the impending doom and they cannot here it.
    Israel always falls off the wagon. Prophets get axed.
    What happens if the mainline faiths decline? Am I in trouble then? I don’t think so. It might be the best thing ever. I will still be able to express my love affair with the divine, yes? To me, that is our job. God did not create us to be Methodists or Episcopalians or Roman Catholic, even.
    Yes it is hard to accept the idea that God knows what God is doing. It looks aweful. But it isn’t.
    I am a perfect example. I was an atheist until age 54. Now I am a Methodist, crying each Sunday if we sing “How Great Thou Art.” or serve communion. Around me are lifelong Methodists who seem to be timing the worship service so they can scramboly out of there. I was there many times. Perhaps I will be there again. In other words, like them, I, too, continue to evolve.
    And I am still a terrible sinner. My worst sin is my deep revulsion for mega-churches. They don’t even put a cross on them here in St. Louis. They look like giant movie theatre/gas station/kiddy lands. God knows what they do (literally). At least I quit hating Mormons!
    James Alison talks about the evolution of our communication with the divine. We no longer sacrifice our firstborn sons. We no longer think God is our God among the other gods. And I think we might make this century less violent than the last. At least I can imagine it. Maybe we are evolving as designed. I am confident that Gods love for us is sweet and that none of us has reached the zenith of our evolutionary path towards God.
    Some things just are too big to see. The journey is the job.
    Just imagine how it felt to see the temple of Jerusalem destroyed. Was it a bad thing?
    I guess I am not worried, are you? Or, to be more honest, I am not as worried as I was yesterday. So that’s progress.

    • That’s a good comparison that I hadn’t thought of. Watching the Jerusalem temple being destroyed would have been devastating.

  • Lynn Wineland

    I’m a UM Clergy Spouse. My wife is retiring in few weeks. I’ve thought of dabbling in Catholicism as well. There is sizable Catholic church in every town. My interest is more in Orthodoxy; and have thought of trying it out; but they are harder to find. I don’t need a pastor or someone to preach at me, or being part of money appeals, or the same boring fillers/liturgy/words every week. I would just rather be! Go in the middle of the week and spend time with “the divine”. Light a candle in prayer for one of my friends and then go home. If I need to talk to a minister, I can; but I don’t feel like feeling compelled to give money to appease a denomination and the local church financial committee

    • I hear you! I think clergy and clergy spouses have a uniquely burned out perspective when it comes to the non-temple-ness of our congregations.

  • Thank you for the article because I really feel we need temples for Christian contemplation. Cultivating
    our energy to its highest degree of application by identifying with the loving
    energy of the soul is the Christian thing to do. The positive influence of
    Christ becomes a purposeful force at the core of our being by increasing the
    knowledge of the finer strata showing a way to serve the energy of the soul.
    This perception of subtle consciousness updates the mind to set up the brain as
    an electrical condenser ready to send energy to any nerve setting appropriate to
    prompt muscles into action. Energy is communicated and charged to every part of
    the body aiding nerves, the brain, and contracting muscles to make the mind
    fruitful, the body whole, and the nerves steady. This vitality, life and power from the clear
    view of the soul can not only being used for better efficiency, but to uplift
    the bleak and aide the poor. The stronger one becomes in mind and purpose, the
    more people one can help with prevention, loss of vital energy, firsthand
    knowledge and understanding about life. The energetic self-controlled Christian
    aligned with Christ consciousness attracts attention, love and energy to be
    distributed, it is not a lonely live, but one of energy, love and magnetism as
    the mystic interacts with the splintered energy of the world in order to heal
    and bring about wholeness. http://thinkunity.com

  • John Crowe

    I’m not sure this is a matter of outward form as much as it is a matter of inner formation. We don’t need more or fancier church temples or buildinigs, we need for churches to be spiritual temples as described in Ephesians 2:19-22; I Peter 2:5.

    A big part of this is reorienting ourselves to what it means for Jesus to being head of the body, his church.

    We need to ask ourselves what does it mean in the practice of the life and ministry of a church body for Jesus to be the head; what are the concrete characteristics of a church where Jesus is the head, and what are the tangible consequences of a church where someone or some thing other than Jesus is head?

    Another big part of this is the spiritual formation of a congregation as a spiritual body of believers. The NT calling the church the body of Christ is more than just a definition. It is a spiritual prescription for how a church is to live, relate, love and minister with the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

    • good point about the temple being our inward reality. We can make anywhere a temple if our heart is oriented right.

      • Joseph M

        I like N.T. Wright’s description of Temples as places where Heaven and Earth overlap. Which flows into the Idea that if We are now the Temple of God (1 Cor 3:16-19) then we as individuals ans Congregations are to be places where Heaven intersects with Earth. The end goal is that the whole Earth is Temple.

        As a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints we are taught that our homes are to sacred spaces just like the Temple is.

  • I grew up Methodist and spent forty years in the Methodist ministry, then retired to a village where there is no Methodist church, so I went Anglican. The good folk soon dragooned me into presiding at the Eucharist with the permission of the Bishop, along with two other retired (Anglican) priests. We take turns. I am still, heart and soul, a Methodist, but the relief and release from having to try so hard to generate a new worship experience, either as a member of the congregation or as officiant at the Eucharist, every week that comes from settling into the by now comfortably familiar Anglican liturgy is wonderful. You are onto something! Thankyou.

  • Amanda Nicol

    I grew up in the UMC and am finishing up a nine-month ministry residency at a United Methodist congregation in Oregon before heading off to seminary. Every time I am called upon to preach, I cringe a little inside, not because I hate to inspire people with the Word of God, but because I hate how central the sermon has become to our worship. My mentor pastor says preaching is like a CEO making a major presentation to their board every week. It feels like worship has become nothing more than a means of convincing people to show up again the next week, rather than a way to connect them with the Divine.

    The sanctuary never feels holier to me than when it is empty and unlit, all the sound equipment and microphones and screen projectors put away. Every time I walk by it in that state of undress, I feel compelled to go inside and pray. I think that quiet ambiance is why I have a particular fascination with the Celestial Room in the Mormon temples – all you do in those rooms is sit with God and pray.

    • I totally agree.

    • Joseph M

      It is very restful to the soul to sit in the Celestial room and just be in the presence of God. We also try to maintain a reverence for the Chapel portion of our Church buildings.

      The stile of the services comes out of a particularly aggressive ‘low church’ period of American history, but the Eucharist is central (we call it just the Sacrament) and it always feels to me like we are in a kind of spiritual bubble during its administration (you can hear the bubble ‘pop’ right after that portion of the meeting finishes).

  • bill wald

    I also was raised in the UMC. Spent 20 years as a Baptist and the next 20 in the Christian Reformed Church. When my pastor, a personal friend retires, will find a “high church” Episcopal or Catholic service.

  • Deacon George Wunderlich

    As an ordained Deacon in the Roman catholic Church I feel an express lack of temple “feel” when i enter most protestant churches. When I enter a Catholic or Orthodox church it is usually there. I have always felt that it was the profound feeling that comes knowing that Christ is physically present in the Eucharist and that the Eucharist is present in the tabernacle of the church. Interestingly, you can many times feel the lack of presence in a Catholic church and when you do, it is usually that there is no reservation of the Blessed Sacrament at that time.

    • My most ecstatic encounters with the presence of God have been in the chapel of the blessed sacrament at the national shrine in DC so I totally know what you mean.

      • Deacon George Wunderlich