Church architecture has always fascinated me. The spaces we create for worship and their theological implications challenge my thinking about how we try to express the spiritual through the physical. One of the most interesting and challenging papers I wrote in seminary was on the subject “The Church and Architecture” for Dr. John Newport’s Philosophy of Religion class.
In recent years, I have come to realize how easy it is to confuse sacred space with sacred presence. Sacred space--whether constructed or naturally occurring--provides an environment where we can prepare to encounter God. Sacred presence occurs whenever we perceive God in a meaningful way.
There can be a beautifully designed sacred space, but we do not necessarily find God there unless our hearts and minds are prepared to do so. We have all visited beautiful spaces that were created for the worship of God, but meaningful worship no longer takes place in that space. These places have become architectural artifacts that witness to past, often forgotten, practices.
On the other hand, we can experience the presence of God anywhere. We may be in a cathedral, in nature, in our bedroom, or in an automobile. My theology affirms that God is always near us, even when we are unaware; however, in times of prayer, need, and openness, God’s presence is manifested in intimacy, power, or any hundreds of other ways.
In the most fortuitous situations, sacred space and sacred presence intersect for a significant corporate or individual time of worship.
What makes the difference? First, personal preparation is important. When we come to God with a prepared spirit, heart, and mind, we are better prepared to experience the desired presence. This is true whether we are alone, with two or three others, or a large crowd. Second, being part of a faith community worshipping together in a space often facilitates our receptivity to the sacred presence. Certainly, being present with others does not always enhance our worship of God or guarantee our experiencing the sacred presence, but when we are immersed in committed relationship with others, we are in a situation where God’s presence can become real.
Although many congregations value their buildings, authentic faith communities will understand that it is the relationship with others that facilitates their awareness of God in the space they occupy. We celebrate our sacred places, but it is sacred presence that we crave.