June 20, 2011

Space invaders

The air conditioner died, not with a bang but a whimper.

Because of problems getting the parts, it would be a month before the company could install a new unit. With early June temperatures in the 90s – and the priest already prone to sweating through his vestments, worship was moved into the fellowship hall.

The altar guild had double-duty, transforming the folding tables into a makeshift altar and bringing out the fine linens and silver. The secretary had twice the work of creating bulletins for both the liturgy and the worship music. The organist made due with a practice piano, and the coffee hour guild took pains to quietly prepare the after-service treats.

When the priest announced that the air conditioner should be installed by the end of this week, you would think that the congregation would have erupted into applause. Instead several people asked if we could continue worship in the fellowship hall throughout the summer.

It’s not that the nave is unsuitable space. The worship space at this church is among the most beautiful I’ve seen. The arches stretch across the Gothic-style ceiling like knights mounted on their horses, flags raised to welcome the king. The sun casts prisms of light through the stained glass windows, and the baptismal font, cut from stone, is a work of art. This is amazing space in which to worship our Lord.

But in the confines of the fellowship hall, we are forced to sit next to one another. No one has a designated pew. The choir is among us, and we can actually hear the people around us joining in the hymns.

The space creates community.

As we return to the newly air conditioned nave this week, the question arises: how can we transform the vast expanse of the church into space that encourages rubbing elbows?

Should we rope off the side aisles, forcing folks into the center pews and into closer contact? Should we institute a reverse pew rental system, with the front rows as the cheap seats? How can we couple the beauty of this worship space with intimacy and community?

Look at the spaces in your church. Do they encourage relationship or isolation? For those who have tackled this problem, what advice can you offer?