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.

Trinity Baptist Church: A covenantal, congregational, confessional community

g2This sermon was delivered on July 14, 2013, as a conclusion to a larger series on the Order of Worship at Trinity Baptist Church.  

Text: Psalm 146.


Two weeks ago, in Greensboro, a group of Baptists met in a Sheraton convention center for the 22nd annual Cooperative Baptist Fellowship general assembly.  There, we worshiped together, drank lots of coffee, had lunch meetings and business meetings, and we talked…a lot.  We attended workshops and task force meetings.

One of the workshops was entitled, “Current Trends Facing Traditional Congregations.”  Not a very exciting title, I know, but in this Baptist meeting—with so many of us serving in congregations that sociologists label traditional—it was quite relevant.

The speaker opened up with the usual statistics: With every passing generation, fewer people frequent traditional churches.  The number of baptisms are decreasing, and even the churches that are going “contemporary” are struggling to see a sustainable attendance.

I’ve heard the stats before: When it comes to people my age and younger, nearly 8 out of 10 of us have never visited—and will never visit—a church.  More often than not, we like to be labeled “spiritual, but not religious.”  And that’s usually a line to shut people up rather than make for some good, theological conversation.

Yet, even in the face of these startling statistics, there is hope for the Christ’s church—more importantly, there is a resurgence of the importance of tradition and liturgy, of the priesthood of believers, and of the values that Baptists hold dear in many parts of society.  It may be hard to find, but it’s out there.

I’m not going to tell you over the next few minutes that church is still the greatest place to meet God—you know that it is a good place, or else you wouldn’t be here this morning.  Nor am I going to pitch this as a long infomercial on being Baptist; this is sermon time, not nap time.

But what I do want to talk about this morning, as a part of what we’ve been studying over the last month related to worship, is the way that we can continue to be faithful to the mission God has given us, in our church, in this place and time.

We’ve already looked at the various parts of our “order of worship” over the last few weeks—no reason to review now—but let’s take a step back and see what is not explicitly written out in our bulletin.  What are the things that are important to us, and how is God cultivating in us and this church a vibrant, healthy spirituality that echoes the author of Psalm 146, “Praise the Lord, O my soul!  I will praise the Lord as long as I live!”

If you look in your bulletin, you’ll see that I’ve listed three questions that will help us think through some of the things we are talking about.


So let’s turn to the first question:  “What is missing from our worship service?”

Now, this isn’t a time for us to declare what is lacking from our worship service.  I’m sure all of us might have two cents for the worship committee on what we can improve or do differently.  Everyone has an opinion on worship, that’s for sure.

What’s missing from our order of worship, however, may be just as significant as what is in or worship.

For instance, many churches recite creeds as a part of worship.  Many of you grew up in one of these traditions and may remember reciting the Apostle’s Creed every Sunday.

We do not recite creeds in our service because Baptists are non-creedal people by tradition.  We may hold to the beliefs and values of many creeds, including the Apostle’s Creed, but we don’t make it a part of our worship because we believe in the primacy of God’s revelation in the person of Jesus and in scripture.

Psalm 146:3 says it best:  “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

This reminds us that we Baptists also pride ourselves in the fact that we don’t let other people from outside of our congregation tell us what to believe or how to go about our faith formation.

It’s convenient to have bishops, but it can get oppressive too: As one sociologist states, other denominations that adhere to an outside authority “don’t have bishops, they have editors.”    Ours is an unedited faith; we don’t let man’s opinion censor what we think God may be telling us to do.

So how do we answer question #1?   We are not creedal people—we do not adhere to any one creed or force each other to bow to any outside authority other than the Triune God and scripture.  But we are a covenantal people—we believe in the promise of community and the promise that God has a purpose for His community.

To be a people of covenant means that we work together to discern how the Holy Spirit is directing our church.  If a bishop is not present to guide us, then we are responsible to submit to one another and figure out where God is leading us together.  We submit to prayer and to scripture, to compassion, not coercion.

I’ve had many people ask me how we Trinity folk minister in a church that is full of so many diverse theologies and political persuasions.  I like to think that we follow the advice of late Baptist preacher, Will Campbell, who said this about social issues that divide churches: “A [divisive social issue] is a human tragedy, and in a tragedy you can’t take up sides.  You just have to minister to the hurt wherever you find it.”

Being a covenantal people—being promise-keepers to one another—means we have an obligation to minister to the hurt wherever we find it!


What about the second question:  “What is uniquely ‘Baptist’ about our worship service?”

Over the past ten years I’ve been with Trinity, I have prayed to God about worship and how our church worships.  There was a time, about six years ago in which we were discussing the possibility of going contemporary in our worship or at least hosting two separate services, one traditional and one contemporary.

We discovered over the course of a year that its hard to be all things to all people; and if you choose one style of worship, it has to be done professionally and organically.  It can’t be forced, and it can’t be accomplished out of a reaction to  anxiety or fear related to the church’s growth.

Change for change-sake is always laden with problems, and change born from fear is always a misguided venture.

Nevertheless, although we chose long ago that we like our liturgy and tradition; I’ve been following trends in the contemporary church.  We have even done a great job mingling new songs into our worship set, albeit a little too slowly for some, myself included.

But keep this in mind:  Only a few contemporary churches are growing, especially where there is a founding pastor in place.  But, contemporary churches also have their limits: Participation from the laity decreases, and scripture usually takes a back seat.  Sure, you may have a Bible-centered sermon, but scripture is rarely read in services, if at all, and when scripture is read, it is by a person on the leadership or worship team.

The reason why many churches decrease lay participation is because it’s cumbersome.  It takes time, and it can appear to bring the spirit of worship to a halt.  That may be true in some circumstances…

What is uniquely Baptist in what God is doing here at Trinity?  I think that it is our priority on creating opportunities for participation within the laity.  We have several parts in our worship in which scripture is read, usually by someone in the congregation.  We also have a time of pastoral prayer that lets us have a family conversation on the needs in our lives.  We have an occasional M & M Moment that lets us share what God is doing in our own, unique ministries.

That’s because Trinity, like so many Baptist churches, is a congregational community.  The Spirit stirs the community and awakens all of us—the priesthood of believers—to the Words that God has for us.  The sermon is only one Word of God uttered in our hour together; other Words come in the form of scripture lessons, in prayers, in music and praise, and in our time of sharing during pastoral prayer.

Furthermore, Congregational communities create a new language to speak about church: We don’t say, “I am going to church”; rather, we say, “I am the church.”

We don’t take our people and move them around like pawns on the mission field; rather, we encourage people to see their own lives as the mission field.  Why ask one of our nurses to serve in some far off land for a mission trip when they have a here at Rockdale or Newton or Henry?

In Psalm 146:7-8, it says that the Lord sets prisoners free and opens the eyes of the blind.    In Luke 4, Jesus said that he came to set prisoners free, liberate captives, and open the eyes of the blind.  When Jesus rose from the dead and ascended to heaven, he commissioned all of us to follow in God’s and Jesus’ footsteps and do some liberating of our own.

We are a congregational community in which all of us are called to be ministers and missionaries; our worship service is merely the time to celebrate that fact and share together the ways in which we are experiencing this ministry.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  Our worship service is not the destination; it is merely a resource for the grand journey God gives each of us.


How about our third question:  “What is uniquely ‘Trinity’ about our worship service?”

Although Trinity is considered a traditional church like so many other churches in our county, we are one of the few, if not the only, Baptist church that adheres closely to the Christian calendar and the church year.  Ours is a liturgical worship service that celebrates the holy days throughout the year, such as Advent and Lent.

Several weeks ago, we had missionaries come and sing with us.  I spoke with Jackson’s dad afterward–his wife is in the group—and he told me that the team was asking whether we were Baptist or Episcopalian because of our order of worship.  I laughed, but I was also reminded that we have always relied on liturgy here at Trinity because we know that we live according to God’s time, not ours.

Our time goes too fast; our children grow up too quickly, our food and entertainment come to us too instantly.  Following the liturgical year slows us down and lets us remember that God is God, and we are not.

In this way, we are a confessional church: We confess that we are not God, that we are here to serve God and trust that history unfolds according to God’s plan and according to His timing.

Being a confessional church has its benefits.  For one, we make the confession and testimony of scripture—not our preferences or opinions, or even the pastor’s ideas—have the first and final say in how we plan our services and our worship experiences.

Time after time, I meet pastors who serve in other churches that aren’t liturgical, and they ask how I find sermon content week after week or how I plan worship.  “Simple,” I answer—“Just let God’s Word guide you, follow the church calendar, and remember what—and Whose—time it is!”

Another thing that is unique to Trinity as a confessing church is that we’ve always been a creative church.  I know that many of our services may not look creative in an explicit way, but if you were to sit in on a worship committee meeting, or a staff meeting, or in my office when I plan sermons, you will see that our creativity comes out in ways that weave our themes together for worship.

Listen closely enough, and you may hear how the songs echo the scriptures being read, or how the puppets emphasize a theme that goes with the sermon.

Readings and prayers also do the same.  And we’ve come a long way over the past five years in incorporating a variety of faith traditions, including gospel and other music backgrounds in our repertoire.

We use the overhead projector for music because we don’t pull songs from one hymnal, but as many as a half-dozen different hymnals and music resources.

There is a challenge in this: I think, out of all the things we do, being creative—and living out one of our core values that says that we are to create interactions in which we experience God—is the hardest calling Trinity has.

It’s a never-ending mission that requires time, prayer and patience.  But look at the pay-off:   Today, we sang a song for our offertory, “Sing We Now to God, Creator,” which was penned by one of our music ministers from long ago, Greg Smith, now pastor of Scott Boulevard Baptist Church in Decatur.

Or, just take a walk in our prayer garden and see the colors, hues, and landscapes that one of our mastergardener artists managed to create in our front yard for our enjoyment.  What a confession that God is a creative God!

Or what about Matt’s passion for making coaching a new way to help hungry and thirsty disciples grow closer to Jesus?  It doesn’t look creative at first, but when you consider how effective it is at the handful of other churches that are doing it, you can see God’s creative fingers in the background weaving together a pregnant seed that will give way to growth and vibrant spiritual formation for people who may not have the time or opportunity to be in a small group or Sunday school class.

Or what about the oral poetry of one of our hospice nurses or teachers or caregivers who speak a word of hope or encouragement to their patients, students, or loved ones?  They don’t know its poetry that they speak, but any word of Good News is creative poetry that confesses hope in a miracle-working, ever-healing God!

You know, not every worship service will be creative or enlightening or moving.  But we can be assured that, here at Trinity, God’s mission is one that calls us to be:

  • Covenantal in our relationships—keeping promises and adhering to God’s leadership in our lives.
  • Congregational in our ministry—remembering our responsibility in being on mission for a God who calls us to be missional in our places of influence.
  • And confessional—communicating to a hurting world that God is an ever-creative Sower who sows seeds of Good News in places of stagnation and darkness.


When the Holy Spirit moves here and that spark ignites, that’s when we live into our calling.  It is times like those that we say, “That’s Trinity; Trinity: A different kind of Baptist.”

And it is times like those when we say, along with Psalm 146: “The Lord will reign forever, you God, O Zion, for all generations.  Praise the Lord!”