One definition for a church building is “a place of 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 statement is true only in certain circumstances. Personal devotions immediately come to mind. Any meditation or personal prayer is worship. Yet there is still something missing from these devotions. Other people are missing. Do we have a sacrament of Holy Communion celebrated alone? Or how about baptism? Does it happen on its own? We can all imagine scenarios where this is possible. Buzz Aldrin’s ceremony on the Moon is an example of this. But extraordinary circumstances confirm the rule.
Theology of the place
I am often asked: “Where do you serve? I answer by the name of the church where I hold the pulpit. Lay members do not understand this issue. 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 have the?”
Place things in life. There are several levels of place in our lives. What are the possible answers to the question “Where do you live?” The first is your mailing address. Or you can just say 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’m thinking 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 everywhere why not go there somewhere else? But it’s not that simple, is it? We consider location to be important. The value of the real estate is not in question. People invest themselves in places or cults. Place has a lot to do with identity. Who worships is almost as important as who is worshipped.
Does building the church really make no sense? No, there are practical considerations. The place has everything to do with the question “Who is my neighbour?” Closeness to the neighbor must be achieved before we can ever offer help. The Samaritan goes towards the wounded man while the priest and the Levite deliberately move away from him.
Sacred space is an interesting term. A place has space to occupy. The objects with which we fill the space correspond to spiritual and psychological needs. Few acts of worship are more moving than the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday. Removing all the trappings that we usually see in church comes as a shock to congregants. Many people are moved to tears. It gives us spiritual insight.
What happens in sacred spaces? Many things. What should not happen in sacred spaces? This question is how do we know that a space is considered sacred. People often object to certain programs, meetings, or games played in shrines or in special classes in their churches. I am guilty of this too. “Please, not here,” I would say. Why not? What makes this piece more important than the others? There is a fear that using the space for anything other than worship could harm subsequent worship. We give meaning to space.
I visit the largely empty churches of Europe. Even though there are few worshipers now, over time these places acquired a sanctity from the people who worshiped there. When Notre Dame caught fire, many Americans spoke of this symbol of France and French culture. I was more worried that no one would be hurt. But I noticed that the Parisians gathered to watch and cry were singing Ave Maria and not The Marseillaise. Notre-Dame Cathedral is above all a place of Christian worship.