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Sacred Spaces

Anyone involved in church work in a twenty-first century, Western, post-Christian context is familiar with the common trend toward declining church attendance (see here, for some figures from the American context).  The story is a well-rehearsed one: people are interested in “spirituality” not institutional “religion.”  Churches are places of lifeless formalism.  And if churches don’t do anything for us, why bother with them?  Why not spend a Sunday morning enjoying the outdoors or our kids’ sporting activities, or a quiet cafe and a newspaper, or… fill in the blank.

This morning, a friend passed along this interesting post from Sightings (a resource put out by the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School).  Here’s some of what Martin Marty has to say about the decline in church attendance:

Why are they declining? Certainly not because a few atheists write best-sellers. I always look for the simplest causes, such as rejection of drab and conflicted congregations and denominations. Or changes in habits. I watch the ten thousands running past in Sunday marathons or heading to the kids’ soccer games and recall that their grandparents and parents kept the key weekend times and places open for sacred encounters. Oh, and “being spiritual” is not going to help keep the stories, the language of ethics, and the pool of volunteers thriving. Their disappearance has consequences.

Very often, when discussing what we can do to boost church attendance or encourage those who come periodically to come more regularly, we hear some variation of, “let’s make it more convenient for people to come.”  Whether that means having more services, moving church to Sunday evening, starting satellite churches or virtual churches with feeds from some main mother-ship, making church shorter, more exciting, more, gulp, “relevant,” or full of more varied forms of media, the underlying assumption is that we have to accommodate church to people’s tastes and preferences and schedules and desires and conveniences.  What else would (could) we do, after all, in an age where people are increasingly uninterested in church?

Well maybe we could just keep being and doing church.  Maybe we could be a patient and steady witness that it is not always church that needs to change for people.  While it is true that self-examination must be a constant part of the life of a church and that “drab and conflicted congregations” are a very poor advertisement for the hope of the story we tell, sometimes it is we who need to accommodate to church.  Sometimes our habits and assumptions about church need to be exposed and challenged and corrected.  Perhaps church ought not to be something that we’ll get to if there’s nothing else on the schedule.  Perhaps church ought not to be a place we go primarily for a shot of religious inspiration and entertainment, or a place where we can get a bit of morality into our kids.  Perhaps church isn’t as much about us and what we (think we) need, want, and expect as we might think.

Perhaps we ought to keep some times and places open for sacred encounters.

Of course, sacred encounters cannot be manufactured or scheduled or programmed.  But we can leave space.  And we can make time.  We can, as Marty alludes to, consider our habits.  We may have to turn down the volume, we may have to confront our discomfort with silence, we may have to take our eyes off the screen, we may have to do any number of things.  God knows, we often fill our services with so much noise and distraction and media.  But it’s amazing how often, even amidst the chaos of a Sunday morning, there are sacred encounters.  It might be a conversation, a line in a song, a prayer… It might be the sight of friends and neighbours all gathering together around the Lord’s Table.  It might be any number of things.

But none of them can happen, if we don’t make space.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gil #

    I like your use of the word “space” here. I think that space is a critical need, especially in a time where we are constantly bombarded with things that demand our attention or entice us to waste it. But in my thirty-odd year experience of church it seems like “space” is something that we’re decidedly uncomfortable with. Our rhetoric is full of references to “listening to God,” or “slowing down” but it seems like when it comes to what we actually DO in church, we tend to full up the hour with as much noise as possible (whether music, words or whatever else).

    I recently heard someone say that what we need more than anything is to “shut up and listen to God” only to follow that insight up with a 20 minute barrage of loud and disjointed music that allowed no opportunity whatsoever for the kind of reflection or listening that he was calling for. It’s like we have some ideas about the problem might be but we have no idea how to structure our gatherings so that we can actually get there.

    I can’t believe that I’m actually one of those people that’s complaining about the music but…

    September 28, 2010
    • Yes, it’s very true. Silence and space are things that sound nice but that we’re often enormously uncomfortable with in practice (as your example demonstrates). I don’t know what the answer is. I suppose the place to start would be, as always, small. 30-45 seconds of silence in a 6o minute service might seem like nothing, but it’s a start. If we’ve picked up some bad habits, it’s going to take time and practice to change them.

      September 28, 2010
  2. I think it’s funny how “contemporvant” types bemoan liturgical corporate worship for its bland repetition and supposed lack of creativity. Yet, these are the very people who are just as predictable in their own attempts to be contemporary and relevant. Just instead of predictable silence and reflection, there is predictable busyness and noise.

    I think that’s why I liked Regent College chapel so much – they just went with what fit for each particular time together. It was different week to week, instead of some pre-orchestrated attempt to connect with God and other, be that liturgical or “contemporvant.” As you suggest, creating sacred space isn’t cookie-cutter corporate worship. The phrase “creating space” keeps ringing in my ears…

    And if anyone hasn’t seen this video yet, check out what I mean by “contemporvant” –

    September 29, 2010
    • Many critiques of “liturgical” worship are indeed highly ironic. We are all creatures of habit—some of us just happen to prefer different habits.

      Speaking as one who plans worship services, I think that how the task is conceptualized is crucially important. If I think it is my job to create an “amazing” worship experience for people (as in that horrific video you linked to :)), then I will feel a constant pressure to keep track of the latest trends, styles, customer preferences, etc. Scrambling after people’s desires and preferences can only be an exhausting (and probably futile) quest. If I think it is my job to thoughtfully and carefully cultivate time and space, however, that’s a very different story. Not surprisingly, I think there are a lot more (and better) possibilities when the latter approach is adopted.

      September 29, 2010

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