Three years ago, the congregation I serve moved from their home of 85 years to a new, functional, welcoming and repairable building about one mile east of the historic facility.
The church needed to move. Although the new owner has restored the old building and made really important improvements (like adequate and accessible restroom facilities), the limitations there are still huge, particularly for the music ministry and expanded children’s ministry that is part of the core motivation and drive of this church.
The change was both welcome and difficult, and many weren’t able to fully embrace the new spot. I know what bothered me the most: I no longer sensed the memories of prayers in the worship space.
In the previous building, I could almost hear the echos of those eight decades of worship and prayer that had taken place there. The voices would whisper to me when I sat in there, voices I didn’t know, but the walls and pews and other furnishings did. Then, suddenly, with new walls and moveable chairs, and multiple activities a week taking place in that one space–the whispers were no longer there.
Three years now in this new space and the walls, chairs, and other furnishings are again becoming permeated with prayer, music, and the proclamation of the Holy Scriptures. Several of us have sensed it recently. There is something about this space.
All sorts of worship take place here. Quiet liturgical, much louder contemporary, joyful traditional. The children at our daycare and pre-school have chapel here every day–their songs and prayers are beginning to echo here as well. Our midweek ministry overflows it each Wednesday with children and youth for worship and the practice of the shared meal with prayer and loving conversation. The worship teams fill it with music several evenings a week during their practice times.
On the rare occasion when the space is actually empty, and I am able to break free, I go in there and sit or kneel in silence and pray. I couldn’t do it at first. Now, the movement into prayer comes more easily as though the air and walls and furnishings have more fully aligned themselves with a Holy God.
I am asking: can a rented facility, filled with other activities during the week, become also permeated with prayer when the church pops in with the rent-a-church set up on Sundays? Can a movie theater, for example, which has been showing violent, horror or highly sexualized movies, actually become a safe place to worship and pray? Can a school, perhaps where unrestrained bullying has taken place or where angry parents or exhausted teachers are at odds with administrative decisions, be transformed not just physically but also spiritually in an hour set-up time?I suppose this question seems silly on the surface of it. But I don’t think it is. If nothing else, quantum physics has shown us that nothing remains static. Those walls and furnishings may look fixed, but they are not. There is activity taking place in everything at the molecular level. Why would not the things that happen in a place actually affect the atmosphere of it?
Last fall, I was invited to the house of some lovely people I had recently come to know. One room of this house had been especially set aside for meditation and prayer. That was all that took place in there. As I prepared to enter that room, holy tears spring to my eyes. The Spirit of God inhabited that space in an unusual way–and bid me enter with a pure heart and receptive spirit. The walls knew. And so did I.
I’m pondering all this as I look at the future of the church. The problem with buildings is that they do cost money, and must be maintained, repaired and kept up properly or they become major detractors of the ministry that needs to take place. And many will ask: should not that money be used for ministry?
But I am wondering if we can be fully church, i.e., God’s called out people, without having a place of sanctuary, a consecrated place, a holy of holies. Certainly much “church” takes place outside formal church building walls, and there are a lot of buildings called places of worship which don’t have any sense at all of the presence of God in them.
Yet I ask: is there not a need for that kind of set-apart space? If so, how can it be done in cost-effective ways so the life of the church community is not drained and dried out by physical plant needs?
Would church plants become viable sooner if they had their own sacred space rather than being mobile and homeless for many years? I am not saying that the Presence of God cannot override and fill any space. That would be silly. But it does seem to me that some space actually cooperates with the Presence of Holiness–and some does not, just as some people cooperate with the Holy, and some do not.
I’d be real curious to hear what others have seen and experienced here.