Things to Consider

Gathering Spaces: Does your church need one?

November 11, 2008


Why does our church need a gathering space?

People are social beings; we’re always getting together. We gather on formal occasions, like Christmas and weddings. And we gather informally every day…at school, around the dinner table, at work and the homes of friends and family.

When we purposefully gather together, like at Thanksgiving dinner, there is often a host. The host invites people in. A good host makes sure the house is neat (or somewhat picked up) and the food is prepared, and focuses on the guests. As guests, we accept the invitation, enter the host’s home, visit with the host’s family, accept refreshments, offer to help, and say, “Thank you for inviting us.”

Gathering SpaceWe know a genuine gathering from a mere collection of individuals. People in a shopping mall or a movie theater may be together, but they are generally strangers and don’t recognize themselves as part of a group. But what about the stranger who wants to be invited into a gathering? What is it like to be that stranger? We have all had the experience: uneasy feelings, caution about the others around us. It is easy to feel alienated or intimidated. Something prevents a welcome.

How does this relate to Sunday? When we travel to church for Mass, is it a true gathering or simply parishioners occupying the same space? When we enter church on Sunday, are we guests? Hosts? Strangers?

We are all guests, invited by virtue of our baptism, or the promise of baptism, to celebrate the Lord’s Day as members of the Body of Christ. Jesus welcomes all.

We are also the hosts. God welcomes through our hands and words and gestures of welcome to others. It is our role to invite, to welcome, and to attend to each other.

And what of the stranger in our midst…the new family in town, someone who doesn’t hear very well, or anyone for whatever reason feels out of place? They may slip in late, take a seat quickly, and leave silently. How will they feel God’s welcome?

Even longstanding members of a parish can feel like strangers…a Sunday morning argument, preoccupation with a family crisis, or anger over a parish council decision. Someone who is distraught about a change in the Mass or who is unhappy with the pastor. Who will welcome them?

Liturgy is the “the work of the people.” Is not our first work consciously coming together as the people of God? Gathering is our first liturgical act. We must have ample space in our church buildings for our communities to gather. We need places of transformation, reminding us that while we might think of ourselves coming as individuals, we gather as one Body. This is why we need gathering spaces.

Seating AreaThe “What” of Gathering Spaces

Every Sunday, one by one, family by family, we gather for Eucharist. We join with other Christians, choosing to pray together on the Lord’s Day. We don’t gather as isolated individuals. Our gathering brings the Body of Christ together. Each person is valued, needed and, when absent, missed. We can’t be that Body unless we are aware of our need to be gathered first. How do we do this? How do we make the Sunday morning transition from my door to the church door?

» Is the building easy to find?
» Is parking convenient?
» Is there a specific threshold we cross which communicates a new reality?
» What is the first thing we see when we cross it?
» What does the door look like?
» Is there a common entrance? (Multiple exits, not multiple entrances, are important.)

When building or renovating our churches, we need more than the narrow vestibule that many churches contain.

Some parish renovation committees resist the idea of a gathering space. The most common concern is, “Why does it have to be so BIG? Why would anyone want this much open space just to walk through to get into the church?”

First, a little history. In earlier centuries, large churches had a gathering space as a natural part of the architecture. It was often an outdoor courtyard in front of the church door. It became the center of town, the marketplace, the focus of the city’s political and social life. These places are still crossroads through the old towns, natural points of meeting and greeting.

True Cross

Most churches built before 1960, at least in North America, were built without gathering spaces. This is because the style of worship had changed. Parishioners came to church “to hear Father say Mass and listen to his sermon,” but not necessarily to receive Communion. They came to pray the rosary and sing hymns at Benediction. Priests entered from a side sacristy and returned there after Mass. In those days, churches only needed an airlock, a vestibule, to pass through in order to get to Mass. The gathered community was, essentially, incidental to the worship event.

The Second Vatican Council renewed our understanding of the Sunday celebration. Many of these older churches (but not all) were retrofitted to accommodate this new understanding. The altar was brought forward, choirs became visible leaders of song, and communion rails were removed. Tabernacles were moved to their own chapels. Newer churches were built to include these and other architectural modifications to allow for the renewed liturgy.

Vatican II called on the “full, conscious, and active” participation of the faithful. It reclaimed the reality of Christ truly present “when the Church prays and sings,” that is, in the gathered assembly. (See the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, n. 7.) Church leaders and theologians reflected on how to encourage participation and foster a deeper understanding of community. Gathering spaces naturally emerged as a means of expressing this renewed vision of the Church’s liturgical life.

Gathering Spaces Today

Consider the possibilities for a gathering space. In a practical, sociable way, we can:

» Meet friends before going into church
» Provide seating for those being dropped off at the door and who need to wait for a family member to park the car
» Linger after Mass for refreshments and conversation
» Hang up coats
Kiosk» Have easy access to restrooms
» Access the sacristy, offices, extra storage, a kitchenette
» Take fussy children out during worship, yet still be part of the community
» Create a space for food pantry donations
» Sit in comfortable chairs before or after Mass
» Set up tables for registration/information
» Make a library/resource center
» Create a kiosk or message center for posting parish events and other news.

Of course, the space is not simply for socializing, as our purpose is not merely social. As a liturgical space, the gathering space can be used for:

» Providing a space for the place of baptism (pool or font)
» Welcoming new candidates and catechumens into the church
» Receiving children in the Rite of Baptism
» Beginning processions on Sunday and other feasts
» Blessing the palms
» Enshrining the processional cross or a book of prayer intentions
» Providing a niche for a patron statue or shrine
» Locating the crèche
» Visiting before and after weddings
» Waking the body of our loved ones

What words, phrases, or functions can you add to this list of ideas?

As long as these social and liturgical functions do not intrude upon one another (no clutter near the shrine, for example), both purposes live in comfortable harmony.

With all these possibilities, it is no surprise that the only regret building committees have is, “We built it too small!" After it is built and used, the parish understands why it must be large and gracious. As these spaces gain wider acceptance, the attitude of resistance is changing.

Gale Francione is a liturgical design consultant living in Davenport, Iowa.


Selecting a Liturgical Design Consultant (Part 1 and Part 2)

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