Theology of the Sanctuary

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Entire books have been written on this concept, but it is still a greatly neglected aspect of worship in the Church. We spend hours planning the music, the message, even thou announcements. But people listen to announcements for a few minutes, sing along with music for only half an hour, and listen to a message for 20 minutes. But people sit in the sanctuary every week listening to what it says for hours. Despite the fact that the sanctuary does not speak in words, it still conveys messages to our people week after week. From who goes on stage, to where flags are or where the altars are positioned, our sanctuaries speak to our people. We need to make sure that what people our learning from our worship places does not contradict what we are saying with words.

Basic Room Theory

We associate the center of a stage with the primary act. The further away something or someone gets from the center, the less important we think it is. Also, the more something or someone is displayed, the more important we think it/he/she is. With today's technology, lighting plays a large role in designating what is a priority as well.

If something is in the center of the stage, people will assume it has significance, even if it is a spare table with music on it. Likewise, if something is over in the corner it will be much harder to convince people of its' importance no matter what our words say. Much of what is communicated by our buildings is unintentional, subliminal even, but it gets communicated just the same.

The view of the sanctuary needs to be viewed from the point of the congregation, not the preacher. For instance, if the cross is behind the pastor, many people will see the pastor as if they are part of the cross, making a statement on the salvific nature of the pastor that most of us would not agree with. If the seats are angled, then whatever the people are pointed towards is what they will assume to be most important.

The Cross

People theoretically come to Church to encounter God, who they recognize as Jesus. Many Churches recognize this and have a cross in their church as a recognition of the centrality of Jesus in worship. Having a cross on stage can be a very significant symbol for people to be reminded that God is always present. We want to say that Jesus is here with us, ever present, always a priority.

But how we treat the cross, and where it is, can tell a very different story. Is the cross in the corner of the room, behind some shrubs? If the cross is portable, what situations are significant enough to have you move it? When is the cross used in the service? Is the cross lit by lights the same as the pastor?

Many churches have the cross in the far corner of the room, or leave the cross in darkness while lighting up the drummer. This presents a theology that says the cross is really secondary to everything else we do. Similarly, churches often cover the cross with a screen during worship, which presents the exact wrong message. Some liturgical traditions try to overcome the neglect of the cross by draping it with different colors and symbols throughout the year. This makes the cross something to interact with and not just furniture to collect dust.

Access to God

The cross is seen as the symbol of God in the room, it so it is important to make sure that the people feel they have access to it. Traditional church structure places the cross in the back of the room, followed by the pastor and pulpit, then a communion table, then off the platform for a kneeling bench/altar and finally to the people in the pews. This in effect creates a new temple court system. The room itself says that the average person can only come as far as the altar, and then only to confess or receive communion. The pastor is therefore much closer to God than the laypeople, and that whatever the pastor says comes directly from God. For some, this is the correct theological statement to be making.

For others, however, the sanctuary needs to be restructured to more accurately reflect the theology of the church. One option is to put the pulpit on one side of the sanctuary, and the cross on the other. Place the altars around the cross's section, with the communion in front of it. Then there is nothing between the pastor and the congregation. The people come to the altars before God, not the pastor, and everyone goes to the cross to receive communion, not just to the pastor.

Permanent Decorations

What gets removed in your sanctuary and what stays permanently? Those things that stay, whether intended or not, are given importance over those that are removed. For instance, if trash cans are left on stage, people will assume that nothing up there is of great importance. If musical instruments stay, and the communion set moves, music will be presented as more important.

Wall hangings and similar things also often make a statement to people. Week in and week out they will be looking at whatever decorations are up. Especially if there are few decorations of any kind, whatever there are will be seen as very important. If a building fund update is the only image in the sanctuary, people will assume the building is more important than anything else. If, on the other hand, the images are of missions, or recent service projects, or the stations of the cross, the people will learn that those are the important things to the church. Whatever decorations there are, they should be things that are central to the church's mission or beliefs.

Sharing the Stage

Nearly every church has a stage of one form or another. Despite anything that we try to do about it, the stage serves as a separator for many people between the “professionals” and the laity. In many churches, appearing on stage means that someone has “made it” in the congregation. Those people who appear on stage have importance. This can easily create separation in the church between those on stage and those off.

There are generally two ways of dealing with this. First, is to make appearance on stage something that not even the pastor takes lightly. Announcements are not done on it, only what is holy. This retains the importance of the stage, but is done purposefully so that importance is not given to the minor just because it happened on stage.

The second way of dealing with the stage is to purposefully bring most of the church on stage at one time or another. Once people have been on stage regularly, the mystique of the stage diminishes. People begin to realize that anyone can be on there and so it loses some of its' importance.

The Pulpit

The pulpit is the representative of the pastor in the sanctuary. Whether the pastor is behind it or not, it is still the embodiment of preaching. If the pulpit is in the center of the stage and never moves, people will assume the pastor is the most important thing. If it is the fanciest thing in the sanctuary, it will also increase in importance in the eyes of others.

If the church states that the pastor is not that unique or important, using a smaller pulpit, perhaps even one of the musicians music stands, might be more appropriate, as well as illustrate how pastors are not always the center of the church.

Communion

Communion is generally recognized as an important part of the life of the Church. But the exact role it has changes radically between churches. For some, there is a specific table which is set aside for communion and only communion. This shows the constancy and importance of this event, even if it is not celebrated every week.

For others, however, it is something that is only brought out on special occasions. This can easily make communion appear like it is not an important part of the church, something that we ignore the rest of the time, instead of the symbol of something that lasts throughout our entire lives.

As has already been mentioned earlier in this essay, the communion table is often more associated with the pastor than Jesus. This is very poor theology, as no pastor's blood can save any of us. If at all possible, communion should be positioned so that it can be reached directly by the people, but is still connected with the cross or some other symbol of Jesus, and is not positioned so as to be or associated with the pastor.

Flags

Flags are one of the most controversial issues about sanctuary decorations. Whether they should be there or not is a decision of each church, but be aware of what you are saying with them. An individual church is of course housed within a country, but the Church is beyond any nation, and yet made up of many.

If you move the Christian flag and leave the national flag, it gives precedence to the nation over the Church, which most theologies would disagree with. The placement of the flags on stage is also important, as the closer to the center of the stage they are, the more importance they are given.