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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