"St. Sava is the place that keeps our Serbian culture alive in New York (City).Without it, I'm lost," said one church member after a fire destroyed the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava on May 6, 2016.
"The grand, gothic arches have welcomed me every Sunday since 1973, framing baptisms, weddings and funerals," she continued.
As an act of solidarity, Calvary Episcopal Church, a few blocks away, offered to house the services for St. Sava in their sanctuary until the cathedral is reconstructed.
A group of parishoners looked at the beautiful stained-glass windows inside the Calvary sanctuary. "The place is unfamiliar," they said, "but God and the prayers are the same. It's not our church, but it's a holy place. Wherever we go God will be with us."
Differences in Church Buildings
Church buildings are all different. Some resemble auditoriums, while others are more traditional with wooden pews and a center aisle. Some feature altars and crosses, while others cover the walls with art and provide no chairs, instead having their worshipers stand.
Despite these differences, they do have a common feature - they are places where just being inside can draw people to God.
Church Buildings as a Conversation
An article by church architects, David Woodhouse and Andy Tinucci ("Building Faith," in the February, 2017, issue of "Guideposts") explained how these two men feel about designing a church.
"We think of our designs as one side of a conversation. The building says something to the worshiper and the worshiper completes the conversation by responding with his or her faith. That's why we try not to put too many pictures or words into our designs. We keep things abstract. We try to give worshipers room to have their own experience of God using their own imaginations."
In the design philosophy, light, building materials, size, sound, wood, stone or carpeted floors all contribute to a persons's experience of God when entering - and their conversation with God in worship.
Churches I Have Known
This article caused me to pause and recall the design of the churches Mike pastored through the years. When he was in seminary at Duke Divinity School, he served three, small country churches painted white with tall steeples. There were no frills or decorations, the altar and pulpit were the main focus. Two of the churches had cemeteries next to them, as was common long ago.
The remaining churches, all in Indiana, had unique features. Two had balconies (First United Methodist Church in New Castle, and First United Methodist Church in Vincennes). Two, (Faith and Zoar United Methodist) had a belfry where children took turns each week pulling the thick, frayed twine cord to move the bell, signaling the beginning of worship.
Another church (Center United Methodist in Indianapolis) had a long, center aisle with fifty pews on either side. Eight, long rectangular stained-glass windows, installed during Mike's tenure, offered an impressive side focus to the sanctuary.
Mike's last church, Fishers United Methodist, had four aisles, with brides having the choice to enter from any one. A descending dove depicted in layered bricks on a wall behind the altar was a striking reminder of the Holy Spirit.
Until I read the article in "Guideposts," I never thought about how construction of a church could influence the worship experience or draw people together, giving them space for their own private time with God. The two architects believe that churches "need to be free of the distractions of modern life." While I have loved the stained glass of Center Church and the brick dove descending at Fishers, I like the idea that a distraction-free worship space is a gift to the busy, modern person who craves a conversation with God.
What makes you sense God's presence in your church or in churches you've visited? Where do your eyes focus when you enter the sanctuary? On the lights, organ pipes, woodwork, carpet, flowers, altar cloths, candles, stained-glass windows, pictures, the choir, the pastor, the organ? Do you find them a distraction, or do they invite you to conversation with God?
The Church I Attend
Because I attend a large church and sit toward the middle of the sanctuary. I have trouble seeing the altar, especially when people stand. The large fount used for baptism is in my direct view, but what sets me in alignment with God is when I see the five-tiered row of votive candles on a table to the right of the sanctuary. Watching people light a candle, and pause, forms a beautiful picture of coming to God in prayer. I always light a candle at the end of each service for myself or others for whom I pray.
The congregation of St. Sava will surely miss worship each week in their holy place. However, the generosity of Calvary Episcopal Church clearly demonstrates the love of Jesus. I pray in time, the Serbians will find new markers in the sanctuary, that will help them find and hold God's presence. They will rebuild their own space after the devastating fire, perhaps inviting more conversation with God than ever before.
Questions for Reflection
1. Do you find the space where you worship a distraction-free zone? If not, what kind of conversation does it invite?
2. Where does your eye fall as you sit or stand in worship? How does your focus affect your time with God?
Prayer: The generosity, God, of your people in times of adversity demonstrates the way we are always in mission to others. Bless those who are displaced and help them find their familiarity in you despite difficult circumstances. May we all find a rich, deep, intimate conversation with you in the space where we gather to worship. Amen.