Holding church services in secular spaces

Andrew Sullivan surveys some of the recent writings about holding church services in unusual settings.

He quotes Walter Russell Mead who wrote:

As millennials mature in their personal faith and their theological and cultural reflections, we should expect this generation to come forward with new ways of stating and living the Christian message. There will be conflict and wrangling; “New Lights” and “Old Lights” will struggle over doctrine and practice as they have done since Jonathan Edwards’ critics attacked the Great Awakening. But if history is any guide, the new generation will find and express an authentic and compelling interpretation of the ancient faith, and American politics and culture will be shaped in large measure by the answers the millennials find.

And Rod Dreher who said:

I think these nouveau Protestant guys are onto something with their ideas of church coffee shops and other community-center activities. In medieval times, the church was not only the place for liturgy, but was also a community center of sorts. In Chartres, for example, the great cathedral was in those days a community gathering place; merchants even sold goods inside the church when liturgies weren’t going on. That may have been pushing it too far, but as a general matter, I think it’s not a bad thing at all when a community makes the church a center of its common life, and not just during worship.

What do you make of this movement and the fact that the punditocracy is starting to wake up to it?

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Ann Fontaine

    I think the Ashes to Go, etc is a move towards this. Our church used to meet in a former school turned strip mall (a small one) – it definitely “felt like church” and the outcome was that the congregation centers on members – staying in relationship is more important than many other things.

  2. Helen Mosher

    I’m never quite comfortable in church. Sure, I love the hymns and liturgy, but the people I most want to share with are a lot more comfortable in the coffeehouse than in the chapel.

  3. Scott Lybrand

    One of my favorite locations: a retirement center. A church plant I’ve been a part of rents a space from a retirement center for Sunday worship. It’s perfect. We also use a theater, a Jewish community center, and soon, an upstairs room at a seminary. Whatever we can afford. Then, during the week, small groups meet in people’s homes, in bars, or wherever else we can find. The lesson: church can happen anywhere God’s people gather.

    All that said, I am developing a renewed appreciation for my local Episcopal parish: I recently did a Compline series during Advent and invited some Episcopalians and some of the folks from the church plant to attend. When folks who are used to worshiping in a multipurpose room walk into a beautiful sanctuary, you can actually see their faces register for the first time the images, icons, and stained glass that we Episcopalians can take for granted.

    I see quite a lot of room for collaboration between churches with buildings and churches without. There is an openness that comes with worshiping in a non-traditional space that can be life-giving to the church. And there is a beauty to worshiping in space that’s set apart as sacred that can’t be fully replicated in a coffee shop.

    So, both/and.

  4. Beth Reed

    I think we can look at the Dreher quote from another vantage point, too: How responsible is a congregation being if we keep our most significant material asset (our building, most likely) only for our own use for a few hours a week? What if we talked with community leaders and groups about if and how our building could be a resource in our communities?

  5. barbara snyder

    Thanks to Scott for saying it so well.

    Some of the best memories of my life are centered in sitting around in coffee shops, talking about life and living and faith; these moments were very important in my spiritual development, and in learning a better way to live. That was in my “spiritual but not religious” period – and there’s quite a lot to be said for that. (To be sure, though: the whole experience was based on a spiritual undergirding. Having that underpinning allows one to really open up and talk deeply; otherwise I think it would be impossible – and way, way less effective.)

    But now, I’m finding a great, deep, profound well of faith and beauty in liturgical worship – deeper and more profound than anything I have previously known. (This isn’t to say that the coffee shop couldn’t have provided that; perhaps it could have. It didn’t, though.)

    The seasons of the Great Church Year – its feasts, fasts, and rhythms – provide, for me, a much, much deeper experience of faith. With each week and year that passes, The Story opens up more profoundly – and, by the way, it also blessedly takes the focus off of me and my own life and problems as I consider it, and look to it for real life. That right there is worth its weight in gold.

    There is an endless reservoir there, it seems – so I’m a big proponent of liturgical worship, and would be very, very happy to continue to talk about its benefits and to help ensure that it’s there for others. And as Beth notes, I think Dreher is referring to the church itself as the coffee shop! He’s referring to a time when people came to church for all sorts of things as well as for worship.

    So, yes: both things. Since liturgical worship has offered me so much, I want to make sure it still exists for others.

  6. Before I post this link, please understand that I see the value and virtue in this, and the importance in going beyond our walls and our comfort zones.

    However, I think this post offers an important caution and some perspective. As the writer notes, “If I hadn’t seen those words just last week, I might have sworn this was a piece from the 1970’s or 80’s.”

    The question this raises for me is, are these kinds of services yet another form of Titanic deck-chair shuffling?

    Laura Toepfer

  7. I hate it. It privileges one religious sensibility over others–the religion of the word, the message and the “community.” It ignores the sacredness of space, the holiness of places and things. It assumes that the style of religiosity that centers around places and things is inferior to the religion of the word and the community. Or in any case that it has no appeal.

    My religion is wrapped around places and things–around church buildings as holy places. Not “community”–contact with people ruins my religious experience. And I have no interest in the word or the message–if I want theology I read books. The kind of religion discussed here is worthless to me. Without church buildings I have no religion.

  8. Scott Lybrand

    Laura – thanks for the link. It’s an interesting read. I have an ongoing internal struggle about this: am I just trying to do something different/cool to be different/cool? Or is there more going on?

    I think there’s no easy answer to that question. I do think Christians need to be constantly asking ourselves what it is from our tradition we want to hold tightly, and what we need to let go.

    For me, a sacramental experience of Christian faith rooted firmly in baptism and Eucharist are vital…you can’t be church without them. They reveal God to us, slowly, over time.

    BUT, sometimes the liturgical church needs an injection of evangelical energy. Sometimes we need to think more intentionally about how we draw new people into an experience of the life of God. That may, in some places, mean doubling down on our traditional practices (and I say hooray to that). But in other places it means stepping out into the world in different ways than we have been.

    I will say, though, that an ongoing concern of mine is lack of oversight: who is making sure that the pastor in the coffee shop is really spreading the gospel, and not just feeding his/her own ego? That’s why I’d love to see more involvement from diocesan structures in new ways of thinking about church.

  9. Kit Carlson

    I read the Dreher quote as talking about making the church more of a community gathering space, which is a different approach from taking church into secular spaces. Our church building hosts a preschool, a two-day-a-week teen after school center, and then we rent space to many, many groups from 12-step groups to Tai Chi and writers’ groups. Whether any of those folks “become members” is beside the point. Our building is serving its community and is an integral part of community life, which is surely part of the missional imperative.

  10. @Scott,

    Thank you for addressing my mixed feelings and concerns so well!

    Laura Toepfer

  11. But wouldn’t people be drawn in if the church offered that spookiness, that sense of the sacredness of place, the frisson, the aesthetic experience, the woo-woo? The world is a dead dull place–we look for that thrill, that spookiness, that fantasy, the intense pleasure–nor more of the same dull, quotidian crap. For God’s sake, don’t be ashamed: make that thrill, that fantasy, and let people know that it’s there! Church is–or at least should be–a magical mystery tour, a fantasy world, where we can escape from ordinariness, emotional flatness: let people know that–that church isn’t a preaching place, a place where doctrine is inculcated, but a place where you can get the thrill, the intensity, the acid trip, the aesthetic experience and supreme pleasure.

  12. Clint Davis

    Dr. Baber, you go too far, really. The Church is not an extension of the 60’s bliss cult, it’s not Lord of the Rings in real time, it’s not a 24/7 Medieval Faire. Sure, the Church must have some of all of this, but it is an incomplete picture of a fully incarnational Church. I agree with you in many ways, but there’s a line in that underappreciated film “Too Wong Foo” that I think applies here: “We have to make Hollywood wherever we are at.” Take the Church out, but also bring the outside in, as I’ve been commenting for awhile now. Our parish churches for the most part are just too beautiful to lock them up except for 2-3x a week, and if you didn’t build one pretty enough then sucks to be you, but that’s another post for another time! Anyway, Baba Ram Dass and Krishna Das can give you all the bliss, chanting and far out that you’d ever want, and I love that stuff, but I know that every Buddha requires trains of Bodhisattvas or it never mattered in the first place. This doesn’t require doctrinal expositions, perhaps, but the Many Parts have a lot of work to do that bliss can only inspire.

  13. Isaac Bradshaw

    An interesting discussion. It’s probably worth remembering that what communicates “church” to us, building-wise, would communicate a completely different message to the original inhabitants: the Roman basilicas and their mixed-use sacred/secular/judicial functions. So there’s something quite interesting and deeply pre-Nicene Christian about adopting places for sacred functions that weren’t originally designed for worship. The ultimate question, for me, is whether or not the Gospel is being communicated in all things, including the use/aesthetics of our buildings (or lack of buildings). If it is, great. If it isn’t, then we’re doing it wrong.

  14. Scott Lybrand

    Harriet – Yes, some would be drawn in. Others wouldn’t. That’s the point.

  15. Genie Carr

    Our bishop, Michael Curry (Dio. of NC), has talked about this kind of thing–taking church, including worship, outside the familiar walls. I believe the Presiding Bishop has talked about it, too. Our EfM group was talking about lower church attendance, noting that many families have replaced Sunday morning worship with soccer games/tournaments. One idea was to start a worship area where soccer fields are–not permanent, but maybe off to one corner, or in a tent. A simple service could be held between games. Just a thought. And as for somehow doing without liturgical worship, a coffee shop or other secular place could always house such a service–not elaborate, but Eucharist all the same–in a private room perhaps (with other coffee-drinkers invited). Again, just a thought.

  16. Genie Carr

    Our bishop, Michael Curry (Dio. of NC), has talked about this kind of thing–taking church, including worship, outside the familiar walls. I believe the Presiding Bishop has talked about it, too. Our EfM group was talking about lower church attendance, noting that many families have replaced Sunday morning worship with soccer games/tournaments. One idea was to start a worship area where soccer fields are–not permanent, but maybe off to one corner, or in a tent. A simple service could be held between games. Just a thought. And as for somehow doing without liturgical worship, a coffee shop or other secular place could always house such a service–not elaborate, but Eucharist all the same–in a private room perhaps (with other coffee-drinkers invited). Again, just a thought.

  17. David Allen

    Harriet Baber, I am not sure where you got your idea of “church,” but it has no connection to the folks in the first two or three centuries of Christianity, nor does what you describe have any relation to the ministry of Jesus. And those two things alone should be a giant red flag that what you are speaking of isn’t church.

    Bro David

  18. barbara snyder

    What’s really interesting to me is that even the tiniest minority – for instance, Harriet’s minority – can be accommodated, since it really doesn’t matter why people are sitting there, enjoying and using the services; what matters is that they are sitting there. What matters is that the church is helping them in some way – and that’s its primary purpose, as far as I can tell. Notice that Harriet is saying the church provides something to her that nothing else in the world does; that’s remarkable! To me, that’s some really valuable – and encouraging – information.

    The church – the faith – can indeed speak to all sorts and conditions of people. It has things to offer to everybody – and everybody has a place in it. That’s the real beauty of the thing, to me. It might be true – I wouldn’t be at all surprised – that it’s the ardent believers that keep the thing going. It might be true that without its ardent believers, there would be no church at all; I do have that suspicion, myself. Fortunately, ardent believers will do it all anyway, and won’t let anything stop them. Fortunately, their faith can sweep up the whole world in its embrace and be glad of it.

    So I say, let people use the church – the faith – to fix whatever it is they need to have fixed. There’s just nothing else in the world that even tries to do this – let alone accomplishing it….

  19. I didn’t say church should be nothing but the woo-woo/mystical/aesthetic but that it should be at least that. I didn’t say it would draw everyone it, but just that it would draw some in–and that the absence of this stuff would drive some away.

    I’ve been to fancy music shrines where they do the aesthetics to the hilt. And, guess what: they’re packed, and packed with diverse congregations. Try it. Put on a fancy show and advertise. Have fancy dress processions in the street every week. And don’t excommunicate me because this is what matters to me about church. Yeah, I’ll try to be a good person–we pay for the aesthetics with ethics. But if I don’t get the aesthetic/mystical kickback why should I bother?

  20. tgflux

    Just want to say how much I empathize w/ Harriet Baber’s perspective.

    I suspect this may significantly be an Introvert v Extrovert thing. I’m all for being w/ other people . . . in peace marches—to the barricades! (have just seen Les Mis ;-/). And I love the mass w/ a packed house.

    But for truly spiritually-feeding my emotional core, give me an empty catholic and/or byzantine sanctuary, dripping w/ candles, filled w/ icons, illuminated by stained glass. A coffee house is just for my caffeine/wi-fi fix.

    JC Fisher

  21. barbara snyder

    Not only religious people feel this way, BTW.

    I have a good friend – a completely nonobservant Jewish woman – who tells me she loves sitting in religious buildings – churches, too – just for the sense of serenity she feels sitting there….

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