I will be periodically posting a series of essays this year: “How We Worship Matters: Essays on the Worship Battles We Should Fight.”
Physical Space Can Kill Your Worship
As human beings, we live in the physical world. Our spirituality is connected to this, and there is nothing like the Incarnation to give us a picture of how this mystery exists. Jesus is fully God and fully human. What did Jesus display to us? Spirituality is housed in people, not in stone temples or in only one physical point.
The arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost only amplified this by entering the life of every believer on the planet. We can pray in concert with people all over the world because of our connection with the Holy Spirit. Our worship is empowered, no matter at a rustic mountain campground, a warehouse turned into a house of worship, or an old wooden country chapel.
A Beautiful Distraction
Even though the Spirit is in us and moves among us, real people have to meet in a real place. And, that place can significantly affect how we experience worship. I remember one church where behind the platform area the beach was clearly visible through large windows. Our pastor had to compete with the daydreams of surfing that lived in his parishioners’ minds each Sunday. This beautiful distraction colored the life of worship in that church. In fact, it nearly killed it.
I have also led worship in rented school cafeterias. The expected echo and activity of pulling out additional chairs as seats filled brought a sense of excitement. Then, there are the worship rooms that are far too big. An example is a midweek service with 89 in attendance in a building that seats 500. Put those 89 worshippers in a courtyard, and it may change their experience for the better. There is nothing worse than a room that simply is unfit for the situation.
Lights, Sounds, and Seats
If your PA and sound are terrible, it means the listener has to work harder than he or she should to focus on the sermon. If the HVAC system is in disrepair, summer attendance may not meet your desired expectations. When was the last time you painted anything? Does your furniture match or display a theme? Can new people find the entrance? Are the bathrooms clean or updated? Everything we do or don’t do sends a clear message. Being intentional about leading people includes planning well your worship space. We live in the physical world as spiritual beings. The preparation of our place of worship profoundly reflects our of leadership.
Even your seating arrangement can powerfully change the culture of worship in your church. In one building I led worship in, the pastor and I moved the chairs from straight to curved rows, allowing the people to see each other. It sent the message that the front view was only part of the event, signaling that participation was both valued and desired. Lighting matters, too. If your room is always dark, you should not expect people to ever speak to each other. The kind and amount of light determine the type of interaction. Is it for your “program” on the stage or do you want people to be a part of it, too?
The Struggle is Real
Working on space and place in worship is something we all must factor in our leading of worship. Sometimes a battle–or two–must be fought. I remember my first church business meeting at the young age of 16. One of the church fathers was pounding on the altar with these words. “If we spend this much money on new carpet, we will be walking on the bread and butter of our missionaries!” He forgot to mention in his speech the unpleasant fall of an elderly woman. You see, the forty-year-old carpet had tears and snags that toppled one of our dear older saints. Even so, it took a fight to get new carpet. Our mission at home, if neglected, hurts our mission abroad.
It is often a bloody battle to change our place of worship. In past centuries, the price has been substantial over our buildings. Wars–literally–have been fought as to the placement of church furniture. Today, I think we discount the importance of such things. Are we too afraid to fight for our values in this? If so, our building and space might show a lack of leadership more than anything else. Next time you enter your worship space, remember this: Everything in your space sends a message—for better or worse.