Christians create sacred spaces wherever they go!

CoffeeBy Joe LaGuardia

Every Monday, a group of us from Trinity Baptist Church gather at a local coffee shop to fellowship and talk about whatever is on our minds.

Topics range from politics to hobbies, travel excursions to child-rearing.  On any given week, there can be as few as four people or as many as a dozen who attend.

We had a big turnout last week.  We had visitors from the community.  My wife and children–freed from the burdens of school to celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.–were in attendance.  It took about three tables to fit everyone.

I rallied the group and took a picture for our Facebook page.  We laughed.  We told stories.  We were captivated by some folks who told us eyewitness accounts of the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s visit to Southern Seminary in 1961 when several of our parishioners were students there.

Most of all, I was captivated by the idea that we were being the church right there around that table.  (And, yes, there were twelve of us that day.)

It was long ago that we at Trinity changed our tune about what Christ’s Body is all about.  Usually, when people refer to “church,” they refer to a building or a place in which formal worship takes place.

Over the years, we learned that the church is made up, not of bricks and mortar, but of the people of God.  Where “two or more are gathered” in Jesus’ name, we are being the church.  And when we leave a physical building, we therefore bring church wherever we go.

In a conference I attended recently, someone stated that there are two ingredients that make a good church: a sense of transcendence and an environment that inspires a sense of belonging.

For thousands of years, church architecture and music have been the primary catalysts for providing transcendence.  Long-term relationships in the pews and pulpit have added to a congregation’s sense of belonging.

The only problem churches face now is that people no longer require a traditional church building to experience those two ingredients.  Walk into any coffee shop, mall, or movie theater, and you will find architecture, music, and abundant relationships that fulfill people’s needs for transcendence and belonging.

Many churches have to compete; and, in some cases, churches lose the battle and close.

The life and ministry of Christ as told in the New Testament reminds us that we don’t need buildings to have a relationship with God or with others in a sacred space in which the Holy Spirit guides God’s people.  Jesus was constantly on the move, and his only church consisted of crowds, mountain sides, boats, and campfires.

Yet, Jesus did not neglect the buildings that were important in a life of faith–Jesus went to temple for his annual sacrifices; he went for his Bar Mitzvah (Luke 2:42); he went to synagogue to commune, pray, and teach (Luke 4:15).

But he also knew that God was larger than any one of those edifices.

Don’t hear me wrong, dear reader.  I love the institutional church.  I love church buildings.  In fact, I grieve over the fact that we spend more money on erecting sports arenas than we do on building more cathedrals, and that many a church has lost a sense of grandeur when it comes to “God’s house.”

Yet, we have to keep things in perspective: Jesus used places as a means to an end.  He taught and discipled in one place, only to send those very disciples out to create sacred spaces in their local communities.

Church buildings are still a means to an end: They are places to gather and celebrate what God is doing in the world.  They also serve as hubs to equip disciples for ministry.  They are launching pads for ambassadors of the good news of the Gospel.

So it is with our little coffee group every week.  The routine is the same: Worship on Sunday; coffee group on Monday.  And both are church to me.  They are sacred spaces that carve out sacred times for the people of God to meet with one another–and with God–in ever creative and vibrant ways.

Relationships and the sacred space we share

pewsI hear the cliche all of the time: “We are a welcoming church.”

No church thinks that they are not welcoming and, no matter the denomination, each one boasts,”All are invited,” on the marquee.

But I know of a test that truly determines whether this is true: The “Pew Test.”

It is very simple: If a guest comes to your church and sits in any pew, is he or she asked to move because “you’re in my seat”?

I’ve heard horror stories about the “Pew Test” over the years.  We at Trinity have had our share of people who have visited other churches and were told to move from a certain seat.

Yet, I have also learned something very important over the past decade about pews and the people who claim them.   You see, when people have “my seat” in the pew, it is not because they don’t want to welcome others.  It is because our Christian faith is highly experiential and tactile.

It is in church that we experience conversions and born-again transformations.  It is in church that we witness baptisms, baby dedications, and funerals.  There, we are moved with compassion and participate in missions, inspired by God’s Word, and sing hymns that bring encouragement.

We have a variety of spiritual encounters at church, and the seats in which we sit and the rituals that we practice remind us of the variety of ways that God has worked–and works–in our life.

People don’t mean to be rude when they ask you to sit somewhere else; its just that that’s where they’ve sat when they have met with God so many times in their life.  They want to make room for you, but not at the expense of robbing you of the chance to hear their stories, to see why the church is so meaningful to them.

For all of the negative criticism related to rituals, sacred spaces, and monotonous “traditional” worship I’ve heard over the years, I’ve also heard beautiful pleas for why these elements of church-going and worship are significant to those who participate in congregational life.

There is something about sacred spaces–the very pews that we fight over–that gives us opportunities to meet God again and again, week in and week out.  These spaces–both physical and spiritual–are safe places that nurture stability in a world often in disarray and disorientation.

I experienced this in my life in a very personal way.  When my father passed away, his funeral was held in a church that has an auditorium rather than a sanctuary.  There is a stage with a few musical instruments, a simple podium, and a black-curtain backdrop.

It is devoid of icons, crosses, and artwork.  There are no paraments or altar-clothes.  There isn’t an colored antependium that implicitly communicates what season of the Christian year it is.  There are no acolyte candles for children to light or communion chalices to admire, no big open Bible or ambo on a common table that remind us of the centrality of the Holy Word.

The funeral was nice, but I missed my church.  In that moment of sorrow, all I wanted was to sit in my seat in the front row of my church, to be surrounded by my church family, and to find encouragement in that heavy pulpit from which God’s Word had been preached for nearly three decades.

I missed looking at the aged banners that adorn the church walls, the baptistry where my daughter was baptized, the baby-grand piano and the choir loft that’s home to so many familiar hymns and anthems that act as a healing balm to the heart.

I missed seeing one of our children light the acolyte candles to remind me that the Holy Spirit is present with us and that all of us–regardless of age and gender–can participate in our worship to God.  I missed the green antependium, green for “Ordinary Time” in the life of the church, a sign that life still goes on despite tragic loss.

When I did return to my church several weeks later, I found profound comfort in that sacred space.  The songs, the sights, the sounds, and the smells reminded me of a simple message of hope penned long ago by Julian of Norwich: “All will be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally felt the silent love of the “church ladies” sitting in the row directly behind me.  I was warmly embraced by my deacon.  Our pianist preached on my first day back, and his message sent our hearts aright with hope, our tears set aflame with love, and our spirits souring upon lofty places.

Only in a sacred space can you experience that kind of divine interaction.  Thanks be to God.