Stepping Out: Renewing our Worship Space

Dear Friends,

In the last couple of years, I’ve sometimes chosen to preach from the steps in front of the altar instead of the pulpit.  I don’t do it every time I preach because it’s a lot of work to memorize the sermon.  Some weeks, I have the time.  Others, I just don’t have the extra hours on Saturday afternoon and early Sunday morning.  The first time I did it, the content of the sermon called for a more heart-to-heart approach.  I don’t remember the bible text for the day, but I remember thinking, “I just want to talk to them from my heart.  I don’t want to be the biblical and theological authority.  I want to be close, because we’re all in this together.”  So I stepped out of our big, scary pulpit to connect with you more directly.

Preaching has changed over the decades.  Many of us remember when the sermon was, indeed, the authoritative word.  Before we moved to weekly communion, the sermon took up most of the hour.  It was truly a biblical, ethical, theological, pastoral exposition of a biblical text.  Those were the days when no one would think of calling the pastor by his (usually “his”) first name.  Pastors, at that time, often led by decree.

In my own ministry, I can’t recall a time when people called me Pastor Schmeling.  I’ve always been Pastor Bradley. Truth be told, I’m grateful for the change.  I’d rather be one of the priesthood of all believers, with a particular calling to proclaim good words and preside at communion and baptism, than have the #1 authority over all church matters.  Our notions of community life have changed.  I personally believe that the ordination of woman has changed the role.  We’re organizing ourselves less hierarchically, and more connectedly.  We focus on building community and having a shared experience of life-giving celebration on Sunday morning.   The sermon connects us to God and to one another, all of us living out our faith in a complex world.

From the feedback from the meeting with the architect in November, I know you feel that way, too.  We all hope to worship in a way that connects us to God and to one another.  Our worship service isn’t understood as our own private experience of spirituality but a communal expression of the Spirit of Jesus.  When we gather in the sanctuary, we become the body of Christ, all parts of a whole, all equally love, valued, and given gifts for the sake of the church.  In fact, the most important symbol in the worship space isn’t the cross or the altar or pulpit or font, but the gathered assembly.

I’ve been re-reading a document that was put together right before the “cranberry” hymnal came out.  It has some principles to keep in mind when you’re building or renewing a worship space.  (Principles of Worship) Here are some of the ones that jumped out at me as I’ve thought about my experience as a preacher in our sanctuary.

S.2 The place of worship expresses the church’s faith and serves God’s mission.

S-9B [The pulpit] visually expresses the authority of the word of God without overly elevating the reader or preacher or separating them from the congregation.

S-17B Christian hospitality is reflected in the attention a community gives to making its space physically accessible and welcoming to persons of all ages and abilities.

S-19 Flexibility of space and portability of furniture facilitate the variations of worship as well as related activities of congregation and community.

S-21 The process of building a worship space or reordering existing space is itself an act of faith and worship.

S-22 The whole community of faith is involved in the process of designing and creating a new or renewed worship space.

S-25 The renewal of a space for worship is an opportunity for the renewal of a worshipping community.

I’m not sure how this process will conclude, or where I’ll end up standing to speak to you about God’s deep love and grace.  But I can tell you now, that the Holy Spirit is already at work in the conversations, drawings, and meetings that are happening.  We may not know where any of the pastors will speak, but we do know that God is speaking and leading us.  That always gives me hope.

Peace and love,