Sunday, December 18, 2011

Sacred Space

The question she posed to me went something like this: “The theater group can’t have their rehearsal in the sanctuary, can they? I mean it’s a ‘sacred space’, reserved for worship only, right?”

I suppose it depends on who’s answering the question what “sacred space” means. Surely there are some who consecrate their church buildings thereby setting them aside from any use other than the church’s worship. There are just as surely others, however, who feel that the space designated for and dedicated to worship by a congregation can also be used for other purposes.

The prayer for the dedication of a church building in the Presbyterian Book of Occasional Services asks the Almighty:
“May this space be used as
a gathering place for people of goodwill.
When we worship, let us worship gladly;
when we study, let us learn your truth.
May every meeting held here
meet with your approval,
so that this building may stand
as a sign of your Spirit at work in the world,
and as a witness to our Lord and Savior,
Jesus Christ.”

This does not appear to restrict the use of worship space for worship exclusively. On the contrary, it suggests that other things might take place there, and that not all of them need to be churchly activities. Of course the other uses of the building that Christians use for worship and congregational life should be consistent with Christian values. There are many other potential tenants of a church building who are “people of goodwill” that would “meet with [God’s] approval.”

Many New England churches were built on the town square as meeting houses and were home to a variety of activities, including public debates and political meetings. Serving the community was part of the building’s purpose.

In our time we seem to have forgotten this about the buildings we have. With dwindling congregations and aging buildings, the cost of keeping a structure simply for worship and congregational use is becoming, in many places, prohibitive. Once again, therefore, we’re finding it’s better stewardship to let our spaces be used by others to the benefit of the people around us, than it is to let church buildings sit empty.

It’s not a great stretch to imagine that the building which houses your congregation could be an instrument of mission by making room for groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, child-care cooperatives, food pantries, non-profit service groups, Boy and Girl Scouts, amateur choral and theatrical groups, etc.

The first Protestants used architecture to distinguish themselves. Simplicity was the rule for their buildings: a place to meet, not unlike other meeting places. For them, the church was clearly not a building, but the people. Neither did they imagine for a moment that God could be confined to a particular setting or building. So, a building is only a building.

We easily get invested in our worship space. John Calvin and others cautioned about the theological pitfall of preserving a building as the domicile of the Almighty. To keep others out in order to preserve what is only a building, and keep it for God alone, is nothing short of blasphemy. Jealousy of that sort about a physical structure approaches idolatry.

One result of Christian worship is that we are sent into the world to follow the Risen Christ in service. It is also possible to invite the world into our churches as a way of offering Christian hospitality and help.

So the answer to the question posed at the top of the page would be something like, “If there’s a need to which we can respond, let’s do it. In fact, we should be seeking out those whose needs we can help meet.”

How welcoming is your church to outside groups? Do community groups ever make use of your worship space?


  1. The arts are and always have been natural partners for use of worship space. Music performance, in particular, uses the same instruments and acoustic space requirements as worship. Much music literature is sacred, though not necessarily liturgical, providing an opportunity for churches to enrich the spiritual life of their own congregation by offering space for its performance, as well as outreach and connections into the community.

  2. Very timely for us. This press release went to our local papers last week:


    The First United Church, Presbyterian, will once again host the holiday concert of the Hoosick Falls Community Band on Wednesday, December 21 at 7:30 PM. The band, under the direction of Mr. William Gaillard, will present a variety of pieces from around the world including and audience-participation sing-along.

    The annual holiday concert at First United began 29 years ago when the late Rev. Sprunger, then a band member, offered the use of the church for this concert.

  3. As a Girl Scout leader for 11 years, I've been saddened by the churches in our area being less and less willing to accommodate us. We left one church after the session decided we should pay the same rental fees for the room as weddings and banquets ($75 per meeting). I was always told that "if a church has money in the bank or empty rooms in the building, it's not doing it's job". Empty rooms aren't serving anyone.

  4. Jenn,
    I'm really sorry to hear that. I was a Girl Scout and know what an important experience it can be. Though I know this gets more to the topic of hospitality, isn't that part of our responsibility as those entrusted with sacred space? I hope you find a place of welcome.

  5. I am working on a book I have entitled "The Interface". Its argument is that we with our freedom have a choice to make between standing on the Holy Ground of the Revelation of the Lord God the I-AM is or the "No-Man's-Land" of our making in our times with Him. It is this I-AM made known in the fulness of time in His Sacred Space that is revealed through Jesus Christ as the Lord God He is.




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