Church building as liminal space: Our worship experience has a history and habits that promote a dual spirituality
Among most protestant, evangelical churches we say our worship isn't mediated via a priestly order or professional; but isn't that really how, for the most part, congregations experience worship?
The original New Testament church and on into the first 150 or so years met in homes and worshipped around a regular household meal, which helped promote, facilitate, maintain a connection between faith and life as a whole. A separated worship began the process and habits that produced a dualistic spirituality in our faith—one for Sunday and one for the “real world.” When the building (a building) is considered the liminal* space between God and people, a dualistic religious experience is established and maintained through continued use and habits associated with the building (a building). In other words,
“Church is conceived as a sacred space; the ethereal architecture, lighting, music, rituals, religious language, and culture all collaborate to make this a sacred event not experienced elsewhere in life in quite the same way” (Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, p. 103).
Of course, there was a progression and a modification of household worship over the first 150 to 300 years of the early church. But it was Caesar, Constantine specifically, that gave us our start in church as building, away from households. He, not only designed the first separated and built churches, he ordered and approved a professional clergy-class to maintain Christianity under Caesar, and, even, made heresy punishable by the state. Later, under emperor Theodosius such Constantinianism church-forms were strengthened and codified, creating a church culture apart from the text of the New Testament and apart from the household, setting a course for developing a corpus Christianum that affirmed the church’s place under the emperor, and declaring Sunday as the official day of religious “church” observance with obligatory attendance and, as well, punishment for noncompliance.
Most of what we see, experience, and affirm in our church experience is a long by-product of Constantine and the long-standing power invested in a professional clergy class. For sure, there are positive benefits for such a clergy, that is the maintaining and protection of the gospel itself and for preserving a tradition; yet, as in all social experience wherein a guardian class is created (or needed), power becomes the necessarily element in maintaining its (understanding of) purity and rightful inheritance. And, at least in part, the building-centered system we have is a means to protect the rightful inheritors of ecclesiastical power. This, then, becomes part of the building-centered church experience for the congregation, further teaching by habits and world (i.e.,religious) view a dualistic spirituality that separates the sacred from the secular.
When we, that is leaders of the church, are puzzled over, saddened by, and, in too many cases, judgmental of lay-Christians who do not apply or live out their faith in the ordinary, profane, and mundane life outside of “church,” we should not be surprised, for we have taught them to live and experience their faith in this way. When we, by affirmation and by our habits, designate a building as liminal sacred space rather than, as it seems, God's people are now to be such sacred space, we teach our congregations to have a dualistic faith.
*Liminal, that moment or space between earth and heaven, the entrance or threshold between the ordinary or profane and religious or sacred.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.