Doing the Theological Work Before the Spade Work: Designing Worship Space

September 22, 2007


Photo by Michael Jensen

light through stained glassAs a local church pastor, I experienced a church merger and three building projects over the years.  There was an upside and downside to each: the excitement of something new being envisioned and being embodied, and the agony of change -- especially for those whose sense of congregational identity was deeply attached to the status quo.  In all cases, when the final decision was made to go forward, there was a consolidation of energies that was like the rise of wave over a coral shelf; the congregation seemed to surf down the face on a ride that felt like "Now, we are going somewhere!"

As I reflect on it, this feeling of "going somewhere," exhilarating as it is, points out some "soft spots" in congregational life.  One may be a symptom of the lack of focus in ongoing primary spiritual formation and mission.  The other, using the surfing analogy, is "falling off the board" when the ride is over.

I wonder: If a congregation has a robust ongoing sense of encounter with God in liturgy and mission (witnessing to the coming reign of God), would building or renovating an existing worship space or other spaces be a rush and a high, or simply part of that God-oriented life and service?  I suppose someone could argue that if you have to "build," it must be a sign of vitality in the congregation.  Yes, that may be the case; but if the church is growing primarily because of demographics (a community growing dramatically, a major influx of a new racial/ethnic group or of a generational cohort, etc.), the church may be "coping" more than grounded in a clear missiology or a vigorous sense of discovering the Triune God's activity in its midst.

As for "falling off," I am referring to the experience of having been involved in an intense "transactional" journey for the organization, only to discover that the heartbeat of communal and spiritual "transformation" has been neglected in the process or was absent before and during the journey to build or renovate.  There is a vast amount of literature around these terms in the business world.  I will not try to summarize it here because there is not space, nor am I adequately conversant with the nuances of transaction and transformation.  I will simply use the terms in this way:  transactional congregations and leaders are focused on getting a task done -- perhaps "management" would be a suitable parallel term.  Certainly there is a necessary aspect of management in renovating or building a worship space, but we can hope that the congregation and its leaders understand that much more is at stake.  Transformational congregations and leaders continuously work to stay focused on the larger vision -- God's story in Scripture and continuously inhabiting that story in their life together as a means of discerning God's call and their response in their continuing journey together.

In either case, this issue I want to raise here for pastors and other congregational leaders is this:  What should be the focus of congregational life before, during, and after engaging in the process of the renovation or building God's house for the church?

The language here is intentionally chosen.  We are not building something for God.  We are building or renovating a space for the community of faith.  The space may intentionally be designed to point ultimately to God, to evoke an awareness of God, but the penultimate intent is to house the church in its birthing, addressing, forming, feeding, and commissioning the children of the Triune God.  Dare we go so far as to say that the central purpose of the space is to birth, awaken, form, and send a community of Christians as a priestly community who offer themselves to God in Word and Sacrament for the life of the world into which they go and return as witnesses to the Incarnation? (See The Incarnation and the Church's Witness by Darrell L. Guder.)

That vision is demanding and must be continuously recalibrated for the context in which the congregation "finds" itself.  Luke 10 narrates Jesus' sending the seventy out in pairs to "eat what is set before you, heal the sick that are there, and say to them, 'The kingdom of God has come hear to you'" (Luke 10:1-9). (1)  In order to inhabit and enact the last two, we have to "stay" where God has "sent" us and "eat" what is set before us.  In my own musing, at least, the acts of staying in the house that welcomes you and eating what is set before you is the "context" piece.  It has to do with experiencing and understanding the cultural context in which God places us.  This experiencing and understanding is basic, yet how many North American congregations are doing this?  (See The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World (J-B Leadership Network Series) by Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk.)

Many are focused on generic "attractional" approaches seeking to get people whose lives they have not experienced or understood to come to "our" church, rather than taking the emergent route of "staying with" (stability) and "eating" their food and receiving their hospitality (recognizing the grace of the risen Christ who "is going ahead of you to Galilee [the place of ministry]; there you will see him..." (Mark 16:1-8, especially v. 7).  What if we who gather together around font, word/story and table heard more clearly and dangerously the paradoxical words, "This is my body" alongside "He is not here"?  The One who was crucified is here and not here!  What if we held heuristically to the juxtaposition of the real presence and the real absence?  And in so doing struggled to live boldly in the rhythm of gathering in our worship spaces to meet the risen Christ and scattering apostolically into our neighborhood and community to find him where he has gone before us?  (A caveat here on the Luke 10:1b-- "[He] sent them ahead of every town and place where he himself intended to go."  Might this be a post-resurrection reading that connects well to "he is going ahead of you...there you will see him"?)

Here I suggest that building or renovating a worship space before we have done this important work will almost certainly miss the mark in the near and far term.  Unless the congregation has inhabited the narrative of Luke 10 and experienced the context ("staying and eating"), how will they faithfully understand themselves and engage in experiments in ministry in their context?  And how will they create a worship space in which the community of faith experiences itself as the primary agent (Christ's royal priesthood -- 1 Peter 2) both in worship and mission rather than the clergy and professionals?  There are profound implications here for the design of worship space and for the congregation's life in the local community.  (We will be exploring these more fully in Worship Space 101.)

So you may ask, "Then why bother with any present talk or imagining of the worship space different from what we now have?  Why not just leave the space alone and get on with mission?"  My caveat: as you and your congregation seek to experiment in experiencing and understanding your context, you can experiment with rearranging the furnishings (font, pulpit, altar table and seating).  It is a journey in and outside the worship space.  In many cases, it will take as long to come to terms with a suitable space to house God's people for its liturgical prayer as it will to form, equip, and send God's people to stay and eat in their neighborhood.

So then, the focus of the congregation and its leaders before, during, and after engaging in re-imagining a house for the church is experiencing and understanding itself as led by the Spirit to discern the risen Christ in its cultural context and to engage in experiments with "healing" (in the full biblical sense of that word, inclusive of peace and justice) and announcing that the reign of God has come near.

With this line of thinking in mind, I invite you to wrestle with some implications and questions:

»  What would it mean for your congregation to make a transition from attractional and performative (in stable environments) or reactive/regulative (in environments experience discontinuous change) modes to an emerging missional approach?  With whom in your congregation would you engage in starting this journey?

»  What new or more faithfully observed practices would you need to keep in modeling and leading your congregation into inhabiting the Luke 10 narrative?

»  Imagine the links between your congregation's worship (and its spatial arrangement) and your context for mission.  What are the connections?  How could they be teased out and more evocatively experienced by your congregation?

»  Draw a "roof off" diagram of your current worship space.  Then on another sheet of paper, draw a schematic of your church's neighborhood, using words or pictures to illustrate it or illuminate its character.  Then indicate (1) on the first sheet, where your people sit/stand/move in relationship to the primary centers of action in your liturgical space (font, lectern/pulpit and altar-table), and (2) on the second sheet, where your members individually or communally interact with and relate to the people and "tribes" in your church's neighborhood and community -- where your people are eating, healing and announcing the reign of God.  (Neighborhood here is not necessarily limited to the immediate vicinity of church buildings.)  Look at these side by side and listen for what the Spirit prompts in you.  Or -- better yet -- do this exercise with a group of people in your congregation.  You will get a more 360 degree view.

»  If you are serious about being a missional leader, read Alan J. Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk's The Missional Leader, or another book that recalibrates ecclesial and liturgical life in the wider context of the missio deiThe Missional Leader reads our North American context well and calls congregational leaders to take an unflinching journey facing the perils and transitions brought about by discontinuous change.

(1) Perhaps churches today are more in need of attending to this narrative (and its parallels) than the more triumphalist "great commission" in Matthew 28:19-20.  Some missionally focused writers are suggesting that congregations inhabit the sending of the seventy over a period of months and to allow it to be a generative source for reflection on congregational and individual experience, growing understanding, and experiments in ministry in the gospel's cultural context.  See Leslie Newbigen, Darrell Guder and Alan Roxburgh.

Doing the Theological Work before the Spade Work: Designing Worship Space © 2007 Daniel T. Benedict, Jr.  The author has granted permission for this article to appear on the EnVisionChurch website.  Daniel T. Benedict, Jr., an ordained presbyter/elder in The United Methodist Church and once Director of Worship Resources for that denomination, is currently semi-retired but continues writing, teaching online courses and consulting.  He is the author of Patterned by Grace (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Publishing, 2007; ISBN 978-0-9907-5), Come to the Waters: Baptism & Our Ministry of Welcoming Seekers & Making Disciples (The Christian Initiation Series) (Discipleship Resources, 1998; ISBN 0-88177-179-1) and co-author of Contemporary Worship for the Twenty First Century: Worship or Evangelism? (Discipleship Resources, 1994; ISBN 978-0881771381).

To learn more about the course, "Worship Space 101: Designing and Renovating a House for the Church," click on the course title.  The course will be offered again in 2008.  Contact the author to be included on a list for notification when the course is scheduled.

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