Monthly Archives: July 2011

Sacred worship space, you mean there is a history?


To engage questions proposed in my previous post, it might be helpful to review the basic ascriptions and liturgy that have remained relatively constant in Christianity throughout time. Also, we must account for how the church aesthetically adorned sacred worship space. I recognize that this latter issue is a nearly impossible task as there are some traditions that choose not to engage in the common liturgy and aesthetic treatments. There are many, but one such example would be the Quaker tradition. However a few examples should not distract us from the fact that the majority of Christendom has employed aesthetic adornments in sacred worship space and it is still true today.
From early Christian writings, it is clear that Christ followers concerned themselves with the aesthetics of their worship space. The earliest Christian era reveals little about Christian sacred space, but by the third century, Domus Ecclesiae had replaced the early house church. This move set in motion the institutionalization of the church and its sacred space. Tertullian describes the church services as including a meal, the Eucharist, prayer, reading of the scriptures, application of scriptures to the current times, and an offering, all of which was presided over by appointed elders. These activities remained constant in one form or another, celebrating the work of Christ in community. As church matured, the architecture changed dramatically and worship became more formal, but the basic elements of the church remained similar to Tertullian’s description of the liturgy. The church sang, in the voices of a choir, prayed, read scripture, commented on it, collected offerings, and participated in the Eucharist. The sanctuary too remained similar in that it provided a focal point to conduct the service, an altar to celebrate the Eucharist, and a place for the community to participate or observe. This entire area was bound off from the more common areas of the church. The protestant reformation boosted laity involvement and closed the gap of separation of clergy and laity. Luther’s theology declared the priesthood of all believers, thereby diminishing clergy’s mediating role between God and laity. The Bible and its preaching became central for understanding divine power. The reformers continually affirmed the sacraments of the Eucharist and baptism, but the sacraments no longer suggested mystery over laity. The architectural changes introduced by the Reformation were no less significant. First, an emphasis was placed on the pulpit location and its aesthetic treatment. The pulpit, now elevated, was moved closer to laity, and was decorated with high relief figures painted on the sides, and provided teaching through auditory and visual senses. Second, the altar, which displayed the Eucharist, maintained a distinct proximity to the elevated pulpit. The altar and the pulpit created two focal points for the sanctuary. These two focal points were joined later to a lesser degree by the baptismal. The arrangement of these items would remain fluid through the eighteenth century. Several changes were considered to alleviate the multiple focal points in the sanctuary, primarily resulting in a centralized location for all three. This brief overview of the liturgical, architectural, and objects of worship should inform us that the church has used aesthetically pleasing objects and ideas to enhance worship of the Creator. In the modern context, what is the church doing to promote that tradition? Has the church ignored the role that aesthetics of sacred space can play in advancing the Christian story?

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Filed under Aesthetics, Community, Current Church Trends, Ethics

What does our worship space communicate?


Do we ever take time to evaluate what our worship space communicates to our own people or the visitor seeking to hear from God? A church’s sacred worship space communicates something to all those who enter, but what does it communicate? More importantly, does the aesthetic message communicated match the liturgical communication of the service? At some level I realize that I have set up a false dichotomy in that there are clearly aesthetic values in the liturgical elements of worship. However, the question remains, do the aesthetic treatments contribute or distract from the message to be received by the Christian community on a given Sunday. Even more importantly, are the aesthetic treatments being ethically employed to enhance the Christian communications in a given sacred worship space. For example, is it right to have architectural accoutrements that suggest scholastic activity (Greek/Corinthian look) then belittle academics? Similarly, should a church have a large pulpit as the focal point which suggests the text or message is most important then have a pastor that focuses on himself rather than the gospel message? I want to spend some time investigating these questions from several angles to understand how they can inform our worship today in this culture.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Current Church Trends, Ethics, New Testament, Philosophy, Theology

Should American Christians Abandon Church Planting?


As America’s interest in Christianity continues to decline, many are asking if current models of church expansion remain appropriate. David Fitch’s blog calls on denominations to cease funding of church plants and instead begin supporting missionaries here in the U.S. Fitch asserts that the rising costs of planting a church (his estimate 300-400K) make it a nearly impossible task. Second, as we are now in a post-Christian era here in the U.S., he claims, “it puts enormous pressure on the church planter to secure already well-heeled Christians as bodies for the seats on Sunday morning.” Fitch acknowledges that church planting seemed to work during both the post WWII era (disenfranchised mainline Christians and expanding suburbia) and the mid-eighties (seeker-sensitive movement), but he claims these markets are shrinking and the post-Christian U.S. “has become a mission field of its own.” Fitch’s proposes that church planters be replaced with the traditional tent-making foreign missionary that seek to integrate into society, impacting people for Christ through his/her contacts in neighborhoods, workplaces, and social settings.

I believe Fitch’s post will resonate well with many of his readers. However, I find difficulty not with his assessment as much as with his solution. We certainly find ourselves as Christians in a new era of U.S. history with regard to how our unbelieving neighbors view the beliefs we hold so dear. The general population is unaware of the basic tenets of the Christian faith outside of what is available to them in popular media or from those who appose faith in any supernatural (i.e. new-atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens, etc.). Acknowledging this regression does not convince me that we should abandon church planting altogether for an alternative solution. The current post-Christian U.S. cultural landscape, over saturation of churches in particular areas, and start-up costs should not solely determine whether denominations should abandon church planting to missionaries for several reasons.

First, the cultural landscape is not an appropriate reason to abandon church planting. The church has been tasked from its beginning to take the gospel to unreached people groups some of which were hostile to its message. I don’t believe Fitch would disagree with this, but his solution reflects this as he suggests that people gather in a community and influence them individually for Christ through gospel living. But what is the next step? Fitch does not explain, but wouldn’t it involve integration into a body of believers, the church? If there is already one locally, then the question is not about church planting, but how to equip the church member to navigate a post-Christian world bringing his/her neighbor to Christ and into a body of believers. Church planting may or may not be appropriate in a particular area, but cultural contexts should not be a factor.

Second, the over saturation of churches has deemed church planting a relic. I would certainly agree that the fragmentation of the church in the twentieth century has been unhealthy to say the least. Churches have been started (planted) on the backs of church members who have been convinced that a particular church down the road is wrong when in fact they are just different. To warrant such expansion, leadership sometimes use terms such as “liberal” outside of their intended theological context and in ways cast a particular church plant as unique from another existing church down the road. Many times both churches are in fact orthodox, both embracing the tenets of the gospel, but now separated by leadership egos and meaningless interpretations of Christian liberties. However there are areas of the U.S. that are not replete with churches that affirm the orthodox Christian teaching, embracing the gospel message. These areas should be explored, cultivated, and planted.

Third, the cost of planting is too high. Is the cost too high or do higher priorities exist in the church that allow for this to be an excuse? What is the overhead of the average church for things that only serve itself such as extravagant buildings with high mortgages or programs that are inward focused instead of outward focused? The church Christian school movement provides one such example. Churches started these schools beginning in the 1970’s through the present and spend tens of thousands of dollars to offset their costs. Such money could provide for church plants across town. Still others build facilities for their membership to exercise or play sports which results in a church existing apart from community instead of thriving in it. Church planting is not a matter of cost, it is a matter of priority with regard to our money. Shouldn’t the church sacrifice for others rather than collect for themselves?

The solution is not to abandon church planting, but to integrate it with the missionary mindset. A church plant is hard work, I know as I have been involved with several over the years most recently as last year. One church plant near me has employed the missionary tent maker approach. They have four seminary trained planters with local jobs, living in community. They have not surrendered church planting; instead adapting the traditional model integrating it with the tent-maker concepts.

The solution is not to abandon church planting, but to educate our churches on gospel centered priorities. Would not gospel centered priorities include expansion of the church and necessarily include church planting in some cases? The U.S. church has been infiltrated by the smorgasbord mindset that only serves itself. A gospel orientation mindset in a church will serve others at their own expense. This translates into less money spent on those in the church membership than the money spent for outreach into the community.

Abandon church planting? Never. We are called to proclaim the gospel which results in the expansion of the kingdom. Church planting was a necessary part of it in Paul’s day as it is in our day.

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Filed under Community, Current Church Trends, Spirituality, Theology