Sunday, September 22, 2019

What Makes A Church A Holy Place?

"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 sanctuary is unfamiliar," they said, "but God and 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

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 worshipper, and the worshipper 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 worshippers room to have their own experience of God, using their own imaginations"

In their design philosophy, light, buidling materials, size, sound, wood, stone or carpeted floors all contribute to the person's experience of God when entering and their conversation with God in worship.

Churches I Have Known

This article helped me pause and remember the design of the churches Mike served through the years. When he was in school at Duke Divinity School, he served three small country churches painted white with tall steeples. No frills or decorations were inside; the altar and pulpit were the main focus. Two of the churches had cemeteries next to the which was common long ago.

The remaining churches, all in Indiana, had unique features. Two had balconies (New Castle and Vincennes); two (Mt. Vernon) 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 in Indianapolis had a long, center aisle with fifty pews on either side. Eight stained-glass windows, installed during Mike's tenure, offered impressive art to the sanctuary. Mike's last church in Fishers, had four aisles, with brides having the choice to enter from any one of them. A descending dove depicted in layered brick on a wall behind the altar was a 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 appreciated the stained-glass windows and the brick descending dove, I like the idea that a distraction-free worship space is a gift to the busy, modern person who craves a conversation with God.

Your Church

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 pastor, organ? Do you find them a distraction or do they invite you to enter God's presence?

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 God's presence in a new setting. And after they rebuild their own space after the fire, they will build it back 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 is invited as you sit during the service?

2. Where does your eye fall as you sit or stand in worship? How does that affect your time in the sanctuary?

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 familiary in you despite adverse circumstances. May we all find a rich, deep, intimate connection with you in all the spaces where we gather to worship. Amen.

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