While I was in New York in January, my peer group of pastors met with two area ministers to talk about the minister’s role in crafting and leading worship. Our purpose was less to focus on the act of preaching but to look at the overall arc of worship and the role worship plays both in the identity of a church community and how the pastor most faithfully dedicates time and energy to creating worship.
Toward the end of our time together, one of the pastors we met with talked quite a bit about the message our worship space communicates. He pastors Broadway Presbyterian Church on the north side of New York City near Columbia University.
There is a giant organ at the front of the chancel, donated by the original minister of the congregation (his wife was a NYC debutante), and emblazoned across the front of organ are the words, “We Preach Christ and Him Crucified.” I found this a powerful expression of Pauline theology. We live in an age of prosperity gospel preaching and Christianity as self-help, so I thought this powerful reminder prevented any worshiper in that space from forgetting the uncomfortable reality that we worship a savior who died.
The pastor went on to tell us, however, that these words were put there by the pastor in the midst of the fundamentalist/modernist controversy as he took on Harry Emerson Fosdick of First Presbyterian Church, NYC for preaching a gospel of modernity and not the true gospel. The connotation of those words in the chancel were thus to be read, “We Preach Christ and Him Crucified (unlike those other churches).”
Space and its organization send powerful messages to a congregation. In many ways they give us our identity.
We were asked as a group in this sanctuary to consider what a Protestant sanctuary might look like to an unchurched person who wanders in. He drew the analogy to the setting of a courtroom. Here are lined pews faces toward the front. In front, behind a large podium stands a man or woman in a black robe. Behind that person is a group of individuals, normally around twelve, who make up the choir/jury. Sitting in that space may very well bring an uncomfortable feeling that we have arrived to hear God’s verdict on our sinful lives.
And perhaps in a time when the church is being viewed as more judgmental, our architecture is reinforcing stereotypes.
If any worship space plays out this image of the sanctuary as courtroom, it would be ours at First Church Jefferson City, with our elevated central pulpit, our center aisle dividing prosecution and defense teams and our choir sitting in the elevated jury box. Is there anything we can do, then, to break through the air of judgment so that a word of grace made radiate through?
I believe we already do some things, and I think we do well to experiment with some more. Some things we do now include our children’s moment which is normally pretty rowdy, and it’s wonderful that a congregant leads that time, giving voice to someone other than the man in the black robe. We also hold hands during the prayer after the children’s time, creating a sense of intimacy one wouldn’t expect in a courtroom scene. I believe hearing prayer requests creates a deep sense of caring between people as well.
Some of the things I try to do to create this deeper sense of grace include leading the Prayer of Confession from the baptismal font. If there’s ever a time in worship when the judgment of God could be overwhelming it is in that moment of honesty before our Creator. Instead of standing above the people, I stand at the font, which is our reminder of God’s love that is poured out for us. On occasion I also try to come out of the pulpit in preaching or solicit congregational response to questions from the pulpit in a sermon to create a deeper sense of community and less the picture of the judge pronouncing a sentence.
Yet there are more ways to create these sense of communal belonging and grace. I hope in future weeks to continue to think about how we adorn our space to fit the theme of worship. Last Sunday we had nets strewn about the communion table, pulpit, and font as we heard the call of the first disciples. I hope to do more visual imagery this way. I also plan to begin leading the Prayers of the People from the floor instead of the pulpit. These are our prayers, not my prayers on the people’s behalf.
There may still be other ways for us to communicate through our space and ritual the elaborate grace of God that reaches through our pain to capture our hearts and lives. My prayer is that our worship space creates a reverence for the holy, a delight in the divine, and joy in the new life we have in Christ Jesus. So let’s explore together!