While I am no dyed in the wool traditionalist, not by a long shot, I sometimes have a bit of a problem with the words we now use to describe the places we gather together as the church. They are called “worship centers” or “multi-purpose buildings” or “auditoriums.” This is unfortunate. I much prefer the word used by our grandparents: Sanctuary.
Anywhere the church gathers, in a storefront, a gymnasium, an auditorium, or a thousand-year-old cathedral, that place should be a sanctuary. It should be a safe place, a place where people are welcomed into a better way to live and made to feel at home.
This welcome is far more substantial than saying “hello,” shaking hands, or sharing coffee and doughnuts in the fellowship hall (another questionable description of a church building). Maybe English Bible translator and martyr William Tyndale got closer to the mark when with his “plowboy” English he said that Christians should have a “harborous disposition.” To create secure harbors, a place for others to come in from the storm to be warm, safe, and healthy is a high and worthy calling.
I once participated in a retreat where several young people – in their twenties and early thirties—gave their unbridled, unedited assessments of the church. At times, their words were immature and selfish. At other times their words were blisteringly accurate. They were brutally dead on, and gave everyone in the room pause.
One young lady who spoke was Charis. Charis was a thirty-year-old wife and mother of two who had spent her three decades in the church. Her father was a seminary professor, and Charis herself holds a Masters degree in Biblical Studies. She was no cynical, jaded outsider. She has been a determined follower of Jesus most of her life.
At one point in her talk she said through her tears, “I am afraid of the church and what it will do to my children, what it is doing to me. I am tired of the church saying all the right things, but not practicing them. It is difficult for me to come into the churches we have created at this point in history and believe any of it really matters.”
Charis did not stop there. Her last remark was a hopeful prayer. She said, “I don’t want church. But I do want love, transformation, and community.” Love. Transformation. Community. Isn’t this, at least in part, what the church should be about?
Comfort, mercy, communion with God, entrance into the joyful reign of heaven, open arms and open hearts: These should be the natural overflow and outcome of life together with Jesus, as natural as flowers blooming in the spring when the rain falls and the sun shines.
We have spent too much collective time and energy focusing on the drivel, rather than on loving people. We fight and bleed over worship styles, which version of the Bible is the actually inspired one, and drawing up rules and restrictions for who can come to the Lord’s Table and or who can or cannot speak in a pulpit.
We build all this structure and all these regulations on who is allowed in and who should be excluded, creating standards so impossibly high, Jesus Christ himself couldn’t get in the door. We have endorsed and supported legalistic minutia while neglecting the weightier issues of love, mercy and justice.
And meanwhile, people who are lonely, who are dying on the inside, who have had the absolute life beat out of them, who are racked by addiction and loss, who are burdened so low by the cares of this world they cannot lift their heads, will not even look in the church’s direction. They feel so badly already, and they cannot imagine that the church could somehow relieve or support them.
We must recognize these mercy-killing behaviors for what they are, name them, and by God’s grace let Christ remove them. For when the church becomes a place of welcome—a sanctuary—it becomes safe space, and safe space is sacred space.