Monday, February 28, 2011

God Lives Here

Jim Tonkowich, of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, has authored a piece I found at a website called Boundless (which styles itself as a “webzine” that is focused on the family). In his post Tonkowich tells of a man who moves with his family to a new town and decides to go “church shopping” by visiting different denominational services on different Sundays.

“…One week his family went to a contemporary church, and his 12-year-old son left breathless with excitement. The rock band, the audiovisuals, the theater-style seating, a coffee shop with jelly donuts — how could church be any better? ‘Dad,’ he said, ‘that’s the greatest church in the world. We have to go back!’

“The next Sunday, worship was the polar opposite. They visited a traditional Anglican church. When they arrived, the church was quietly filling up. Worshippers slipped into pews silently to kneel in prayer. If words needed to be exchanged, they were in hushed tones. Before the service had even begun, the boy tugged on his dad’s sleeve and whispered with wide-eyed wonder, ‘Dad, I think God lives here.’ There was a palpable sense of the sacred in a counter-cultural setting…

“…When we step into worship regardless of the architecture of our church, we enter the sanctuary. Sanctuary comes from the Latin word sanctus: holy. Holy means set apart, set apart for God. We enter sacred space. God lives here.

“Do we know that? Are we prepared for that? Do we ever treat any space as sacred space? And if not, why not? If all space is ‘sacred,’ then it turns out that no space is sacred since it’s all the same, all ordinary.”

Now I do not recommend “church shopping” as described above. I happen to believe that selecting one’s church should be undertaken in a more serious and thoughtful manner. (What about doctrine? What about creedal statements? What about correct teaching?) Simply dropping in one Sunday to see if the shoe fits is not the best way to judge the soundness of a church’s teaching. My advice to anyone who is “church shopping” has always been to ask questions, read, study and be informed about a denomination. Don’t just show up one Sunday and see if you like the atmosphere. There is more to faith than a good vibe and an emotional high.

However, there is certainly one thing we can learn about a church community by witnessing their Sunday service – we can learn something about their attitude toward the sacred. And we can compare what we see to what we know of historic Christianity. The early Christians sought out the burial sites of the martyrs. They worshiped at the tombs of saints, gathering in the catacombs for the Eucharistic celebration. They marked these spaces with holy images. They set them apart for this special purpose. The ancient Church had respect for sacred space.

Compare this to many Evangelical/Protestant churches today, where you might find coffee and refreshments sold during the service. Or when the space is not used for worship, perhaps a jazzercise class can sweat it out next to the communion table. Or maybe you can have a pick-up game of basketball after we lower the goals out of the rafters and fold up the metal chairs.

Would an ancient Christian recognize this as sacred space? Would he see this as the same Church to which he belonged?

When we attend our church on Sunday morning, do we want our kids to say, “That music rocked, and the donuts were awesome!” Or would we rather they whisper to us quietly, “I think God lives here.”

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