White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

The Rise of the Worship Center and the Decline of Sacred Space.

Published Monday, September 6, 2021 By Joshua Pauling

Recently, I found myself at a fairly typical community church for an educational event. It was a lovely occasion, bustling with the pleasant sight of young and old, families and children. I’m always grateful to see a church with substantial resources and facilities all well-kept. There was an extensive educational wing, a fellowship hall and sanctuary, and even a church cemetery—something I particularly admire, as it confesses the vital Christian hope in the resurrection of the body on the last day. I perused the facilities as is my custom when visiting churches, in search of unique architectural features or historical oddities, en route to contemplating what it all communicates theologically.

I wandered my way to the sanctuary. The doors were closed, but I went in anyway. Although the lights were off, there was enough sunlight penetrating the stained-glass windows that lined both walls, lending a colorful yet muted hue to the space. Towards the front of the sanctuary near the pulpit I noticed a sign, the words of which I couldn’t quite make out. To get a closer look, I walked down the center aisle, flanked by rows of finely crafted wooden pews on each side.

The sign read, “Worship Center this way,” with an arrow pointing out the side doors of the sanctuary. I was intrigued. The sanctuary looked to be in good working order, with pews and a pulpit, and stained-glass windows to boot. Was this sign directing people somewhere else for church services? I did some casual asking around, and learned that the congregation meets in their multi-purpose space which functions as their worship center and fellowship hall, while the traditional sanctuary sits unused, save for weddings and funerals (interesting that for events with such gravitas, the more traditional, sanctified space is used).

I share this little anecdote not to criticize this specific church, but for the broader questions it raises regarding the language we employ to talk about “church,” and what might get lost when that language changes. What is a worship center? What defines such a space? What words has the church used historically to describe its sacred spaces? Below are a series of word-pairings that explore this topic further and offer a starting point to reclaim the church’s lexicon of sacred space.

Worship Center or Nave?

I’ll start with the term that catalyzed this whole reflection: worship center. I can’t help but think of the similar lexical shift in recent years from library to media center—or the massive shopping centers, recreation centers, fitness centers, medical centers, and more that pepper the American landscape. Is this what we want people to subconsciously associate with church through the use of the term worship center? I fear that such language demotes and desacralizes church into the register of the everyday, and brings with it unintended overtones of something transactional and mechanistic.

But not only do we risk connoting the humdrum of the everyday with the usage of the term “center,” by coupling it with the word “worship” there are additional anthropocentric assumptions to address. This is because we often assume worship is primarily an act of man towards God. Humans are considered the main actors in worship, offering their honor and praise to God, individually with their hearts and minds. But as I’ve argued previously, this inverts the ancient worship paradigm in which God was understood as the primary actor in worship, delivering his Son’s gifts of forgiveness and life through Word and Sacrament which congregants gratefully receive by faith. Church is not a transactional exchange of human effort to praise and appease an egocentric god in the sky. Church is God’s service to mankind through the work of his Son, to whom we are united through the means of grace. The term worship center obscures this reality of what actually occurs in the church service. Reclaiming the historic term nave for the space where the promise-keeping God redemptively meets Man can reconnect us to a richer understanding of Christian worship and redemptive history.

Nave comes from the Latin navis, meaning ship, communicating that as Christians gather in the church, they enter the ark of salvation. This simple word ushers us into the story of redemption and connects us to one of Scripture’s clearest motifs: God’s working through water. In the Old Testament, it was the Spirit fluttering over the primordial creation-waters, and God’s judgment and deliverance through the waters of Noah’s Flood and Israel’s Red Sea crossing. In the New Testament, it was Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan with the Spirit-Dove fluttering and the Father’s voice pronouncing, leading to Christ’s call of his disciples as fishers of men, with accompanying nets and fish, boats and storms. The term nave ushers us into this world of God’s water-works and reminds us of our destiny as those united to Christ our Captain, rowing our way under his kingship from the watery grave of sin and death to the refreshing well-spring of living water and everlasting life.

Stage or Sanctuary?

At the front of the space where Christians gather, is what in today’s parlance is called the stage or the platform. This is an insipid and secularizing word choice, which reveals just how extensively church has come to parallel the world of performance and entertainment with vocabulary drawn right from the theater, arena, or concert hall. Is what we gather around at church simply a raised platform or stage? Or is there something other-worldly and eternal, world-renewing and life-altering that takes place when we gather in the Triune name? There are better terms in the church’s lexicon than stage or platform.

It is certainly true that throughout church history the specific terms, accoutrements, and furnishings of sacred space have changed somewhat as church architecture has evolved and denominations have multiplied. But one of the terms that has proven quite durable is sanctuary. Historically, the term sanctuary specifically referred to the defined area in the front of the church where the altar or communion table was located. Sometimes this is also called the chancel—especially today, since many Christians refer to the whole space where Christians gather as the sanctuary (I did so myself in the opening to this piece).

Coming from the Latin sanctus, or holy, the sanctuary is “the holiest space within the worship area.” And you can learn a lot about a church by what it places front and center. For much of church history, the prominent placing of the Lord’s Table in the sanctuary communicated the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the church, and God’s activity through Word, bread, and wine. By recuperating the older usage of sanctuary or chancel for the specific space where God promises to be present through Word and Sacrament, we can regain a sense of wonder, awe, and sanctity around the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, which helps return them to their rightful place in the Christian life.

Fellowship Hall or Parish Hall?

While this final pairing of fellowship hall and parish hall may seem nitpicky, words really do matter. Using the name fellowship hall for the area where people gather to share meals and play games implies, at least in some sense, that this is the location where fellowship takes place, and that the nature of fellowship is to enjoy each other’s company. However, Scripture provides a much deeper picture of fellowship. As Arthur Just explains in his Luke commentary and in The Ongoing Feast, when we see the word fellowship being used, or find meals being shared in the New Testament, there is more going on than people just eating food together. Fellowship, he argues, is actually “a manifestation of the eschatological kingdom;” it is “the table fellowship of Jesus,” which is a foretaste of the heavenly feast to come, that we only are able to share together in mutual faith (1-2). As such, fellowship (koinonia in Greek) is at its core participation and union with Christ, and unity with one another around his teaching. This is the thrust of much of koinonia’s New Testament usage, where fellowship is: “in the gospel” (Phil. 1:5); “of the Holy Spirit” (II Cor. 13:14, Phil 2:1); “of his sufferings” (Phil 3:10); “of the faith” (Philemon 1:6); “with the Father” (I John 1:3,6); “with one another” (I John 1:7).

But perhaps most significant of all is Paul’s use of koinonia in I Corinthians 10:16, where it refers to “participation in the blood of Christ” and “participation in the body of Christ.” Christian fellowship is not simply friendship or camaraderie; nor is it potlucks and game nights. It is not measured by the size of the spread at the latest luncheon, or the amount of people attending the next social event. Fellowship takes place around the Table of the Lord in a united confession, partaking of the body and blood of Christ—not around all-purpose tables, partaking of Aunt Betty’s green Jell-o salad.

While there might be several viable lexical alternatives to fellowship hall, it seems to me that the older term parish hall has a lot to offer. A simple dictionary definition is helpful: “a room or building associated with a parish church, used by the local community for social or charitable activities (though not necessarily religious activities).” This makes a clear distinction between the primary ministry of the church which takes place through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments—which constitutes true fellowship—and the numerous salutary auxiliary functions of the church that can take place in other church facilities and beyond.

How the Lexicon of Sacred Space Sticks: Teaching and Practice

There is much to gain from recovering the church’s lexicon of sacred space, with its long heritage and the theological weight and symbolism it carries. But just switching back to this older set of terms for sacred space and church facilities won’t make much of an impact unless it is accompanied by clear catechesis and embodied practice. If we don’t teach and practice such things, we’ll just find ourselves with another new set of measly terms in a generation or two.

Simple explanations of historic terms like nave, chancel, sanctuary, and many others connect us to the Christian story. Such deliberate teaching can start when children are young, and develop in complexity as we grow in the faith and in our understanding. Embodied practice also can start young, by modeling and reflecting in and with our own bodies what we say we believe is happening when we gather in Christ’s name. Orienting and moving our bodies with decorum, reverence, and respect helps molds us and forms us in the faith.

Of course, all of this is hard work; but it is also vital work. For we are either catechizing ourselves further towards our Christian identity and eternal destiny, or we are catechizing our way out. Recovering the lexicon and practice of sacred space has a role to play in enabling us “to contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Such a lexicon helps sanctify space for contemplation that births new insight, for silence that brings forth peace, for confession that resolves in forgiveness. We need these places of permanence where our human finitude encounters Divine life through water, Word, bread, and wine. We need times for transcendence where we are ushered into another world beyond digital evanescence and the everyday grind. So, next Sunday when you arrive at church, be transported into another world—the world of Christ’s kingdom, and start using the terms for sacred space that say so. Terms that communicate more clearly what actually happens when and where we gather in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit. And reflect in and with your body that we are in Christ’s personal and real presence as he has promised in Word and Sacrament.

Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo MagazineFront Porch RepublicMere OrthodoxyPublic DiscourseQuillette MagazineSalvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.

  • Joshua Pauling


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