Wednesday, October 3, 2012

A Tale of Two Churches

I had the opportunity a few Sundays ago to preach in two churches the same morning. This “yoked parish” in beautiful upstate New York provoked me to some insights I hadn’t pondered deeply enough before.

The two churches, separated by about 10 miles of farm land, look physically very different.

The 9:00 AM service was in a lovely stone structure perched on top of a hill. Entering the roadway approaching the building, one can’t help being impressed. Inside it is stately and narrow, with dark word and lofty ceiling. The pulpit area is framed with an arch over a curved apse.

At 10:30 AM the other congregation gathered in a very traditional looking “New England” style church, a clean white frame structure, classic in design. Inside, the worship space is bright and airy, wide and open. The pulpit is on a platform extending the width of the room.

The congregations, however, were very different—at least by my reading.

The 9 o’clock crowd tended to be somewhat formal. When we came to the Greeting of Peace, for example, folks mostly stayed where they were. The Greeting was a formality—minimal chit chat. The people were, generally speaking, reserved and restrained.

Singing at 9 o’clock was faithfully led by the organist, and the familiar hymns chosen by the pastor went okay, but no thrills.

The 10:30 people were more informal. Their greeting of Peace had enthusiasm to it—they said “Shalom” as well as “Peace”. Worshippers wandered all over the room to greet one another warmly. And, as one of them said in an aside to me, “Getting them back together is like herding cats.” It was.

Music at 10:30 was different from my experience on a Sunday morning in a long while. Hymns and service music were a capella. The pastor plays guitar, and usually he’s the liturgical musician. He’d primed a couple of people he knew would be there in his absence to lead the singing, which they did, and did it ably. Music was a little slow, but in tune and sung with gusto.

Both congregations were exactly the same size. By my quick count, 15 souls showed up in each place to worship the Almighty. In each place there was a child, a grade school girl in the first and an older boy at the second.

The same worship order was used in both churches, as was customary, so that each provided for a “Time for Children”. Since I consider “children’s sermons” an abomination, I took the occasion to have the child lead us in learning something about the way we worship. They each got to point out the butterfly on my stole as an introduction to the meaning of symbols in Christian worship.

In the more formal 9 o’clock service, the young girl was reactive while the adults were very passive. At 10:30 the lad was embarrassed to be standing alone, and the congregation quickly took an active part with him in the conversation.

The wondrous insight I had was that it would appear that the physical space in which worship was conducted had an influence on how worship was transacted. Worship in the more formal building was more formal than the more open and free worship in the bright, open space.

While this is not an earth-shaking insight, it’s worth considering for any congregation, and for ny team of people responsible for planning and leading worship. Many questions pop up.

What constraints on worship are applied by the physical structure? Does the space create a particular mood? How can the mood be shifted by the décor? Is physical movement of the worshippers restricted or liberated by the building. Does the shape of the ceiling or backdrop of the pulpit/platform control, augment or distort sound?

The biggest question of all, of course, is, What to change and how? What would be accomplished liturgically if the physical building were different?

When next I have lunch with my friend, the pastor of these two churches, I’ll ask him if the people in the two congregations naturally are as different as I perceived. Or are they fairly much alike, and the buildings make their worship exper

iences different? Or did I just misread them altogether. I really don’t think I was too far off, however.

What’s the building like where you worship? How would you like to change it? What impact would changes make on the way you worship there?

1 comment:

  1. Well written and thought provoking as usual. I've noticed too that environment shapes worship. Most likely the architecture of the two buildings (whenever they were built) reflected the larger community at the time. As communities change, buildings can't. Even a remodel can't change a gothic structure into something simplier. But people do change - most often, in the numbers who gather. Worship style in smaller parishes is often shaped by what is available more than anything else; i.e. the pastor on guitar vs. the organist.

    You've given me lots to chew on. I'll be paying more attention to context in terms of architecture.


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