The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Liberating churches from 'sacred spaces'

I’m intrigued by a movement among Episcopalians to sell their national headquarters building in New York City. Whether the shrinking national staff would leave 815 or remain as tenants isn’t clear. Nor is it clear where they would go next if they left. Suggestions range from a large cathedral property (New York or Washington, D.C.) to a middle-of-the-country site.

As a cost-cutting measure, a building sale strikes me as unpromising. I’m not persuaded by arguments that having a church center here is a “Babylonian captivity” or the last relic of an “imperial dream,” as critics put it. Nor do I see the “sell 815” discussion at the Episcopal General Convention in Indianapolis in July as the latest bleak chapter in a once-proud denomination’s relentless collapse. Mainline churches aren’t imploding because their national staffs are incorrectly located, but because congregations have lost touch with a changing world and are still struggling to look outward.

Rather, I see this as an important opportunity to do two things that badly need doing: liberating church life from its obsession with physical facilities, and opening the doors for insiders to look outward.

Let’s start with doors. As an occasional visitor to 815, I find it hostile (too much security) and cold (too much bureaucracy). I understand the need for security and office space. But closed doors are a fundamental flaw in church life. They are barriers. They communicate distance and encourage an attitude of "stay safe inside," as opposed to what Jesus said, "Go forth."

Church workers — lay and clergy, paid and volunteer — become people who work inside doing inside things like holding meetings, attending classes and conducting worship. Those activities matter, but they are barely a fraction of what Jesus wanted. We were called to be pilgrims, not settlers; speakers of truth to power, not occupants of safe places; and a disruptive, transformative force in the world, not custodians of grandeur.

We should be asking what the world needs and how we can respond, not perfecting our internal life.

That raises the question of physical facilities. We call them “sacred spaces” and devote as much as 90 percent of our budgets to using them a few hours a week. We obsess over every detail, from seating to lighting, from altar placement to pipe organ selection. Every detail has a constituency [and] changing any detail stirs outrage — not just mild disagreement worthy of space visited two hours a week, but end-of-civilization outrage.

Facilities feed our addiction to control. Even worse, they divert our attention and give us occasion not to do what we should be doing. Our religious spaces become the perfect excuse for not being “church,” that is, faith communities of sinners seeking wholeness, servants seeking mission, pilgrims seeking temporary shelter.

We allow property to be our identity. Rather than letting the world know us “by our love,” we ask the world to notice and enter our properties as the critical step toward belonging. Faith, we seem to say, means sitting in a pew. We play it safe to avoid offending those whose giving pays for facilities.

More open doors, I say, and more out-there ministry in a dangerous world.


Patty A. Smith

Patty A. Smith

Posted at 4:07 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/14/2012

Ralph Stilwell

Ralph Stilwell

Posted at 5:12 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/14/2012

My observation is that usually about 60% of congregational budgets are spent on salaries (regardless of the size of the congregation), and at least 1/2 of the rest on paying for, maintaining the buildings and climate control, leaving at most 20% of offerings for mission and ministry. I suspect until mission and ministry approaches 40-50% we will continue to see the languishing and dwendling of congregations and denominations. Or to say it more assertively, until we really get about doing the work which Christ gave us we are likely to continue to be irrelevant to most of the world around us. Or as some have said, we must die to what we have been to be alive for Christ and his work in the world.

Daniel Hendricksen

Daniel Hendricksen

Posted at 9:26 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/14/2012

Perhaps most church buildings are underutilized community assets - privately held, close-in to a congregation's unique once-a-week worship needs. But there is another vision for these big buildings which could become a vital center for the communities in which they are built. The organization, Partners for Sacred Spaces, is creating and rolling out a program called Arts in Sacred Places - a collaborative effort to join the asset of buildings belonging to congregations in need of people contact with the energizing outward-facing activities of local arts organizations in need of space. Check it out. Involvment in a greater community is certainly one part of the definition of discipleship in Christ's Kingdom.

David Hoag

David Hoag

Posted at 12:22 pm (U.S. Eastern) 8/16/2012

Please see below.  

Note: David Hoag edited this post at 10:57 am on 8/17/2012.

David Hoag

David Hoag

Posted at 10:57 am (U.S. Eastern) 8/17/2012

Mr. Ehrich provides a crucial statement for moving forward into the future; and, raises key questions for reflection along the way. And, what is Church? In the realities of a cacophonic, hard-pressed world, Church is a needed oasis of faith. Further, where would we be without administration, staffing, and facilities? Yet, “if you build it they will come,” seems a statement more apropos to the nineteenth century and its second great awakening, where one-third of Americans attended church, than to the twenty-first century where the bigger one-half haven't been baptized.

Church can be: 1) a place where two or three are gathered-such as in the home church movement or an emerging church meeting in a bar; or, 2) it can be a 100-year old nave in need of repair whether physically and/or spiritually. Either way, Christians need a sense of place to meet with other Christians in order to clarify our sense of purpose so that in God's world we can go forcefully, evangelically amid the noise, haste so that we can commit random acts of Grace. 

Ultimately, Church life is a “garden of forking paths,” starting with, “God gave us free will.”  We can only build it; each citizen must decide if he, she will come. 

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