Have you ever sat in your church building and day-dreamed about how you would redesign the layout, if money was no object? Okay; maybe you haven’t, but I have. The proposed statement on the practice of Word and Sacrament stirred my imagination sitting in church one day. I began to imagine what the house of the Church would look like if we designed buildings for worship using what is presented in The Use of the Means of Grace document.
The document is organized in four parts, with a preface. The Preface begins by affirming that we gather to worship the Triune God, who creates the Church and sustains it through the Word and the sacraments. We are the Church because we gather around the Gospel “preached in its purity and the holy sacraments…administered according to the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII). This means that when we gather in Jesus’ name the Triune God meets us, speaks to us, and feeds us. This meeting of God and God’s people should stir up some excitement among us. The Holy God, our Savior, and Supporter in this life and our Giver of everlasting life, is here among us. How should the building where this occurs reflect such a happy and awesome meeting?
The arts of human creativity provide a good start. Like children showing our beloved Parent what we can do and like artists displaying our best for the world to see, our meeting places with God should represent our best creative abilities at work for love of the Creator. Arts remind us that the Creator God enjoys creativity. Music expresses our heartfelt love for God. Architecture lifts us into the mysteries of God. All our creative gifts help us worship our God and proclaim to the world around us that this is the place where God comes bringing gifts.
The Proclamation of the Word
“The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is an indispensable part of…worship, constituting the basis for the public proclamation of the Gospel”(p. 8). God’s Word comes to us in the words of the Holy Scriptures. Where is the power of this Presence captured in the building where the Church gathers? Pulpits are sometimes seen as the “barrier furniture” getting in between the preacher and the people. Some preachers prefer not to stand behind (or in) a pulpit, especially in those places where the pulpits are high and lifted up. How can you talk to people when you are in a little box six or ten (or more!) feet above their heads, looking down on them, forcing them to look up to you (a most uncomfortable posture for listening and especially discussing.) On the other hand, some of those pulpits were built as powerful statements about the centrality of the Word of God as well as its power in and for our assemblies. Perhaps what is still needed is a high and lifted up place where the Book can be enshrined. The Book would have to be of impressive size and weight if it is to visually speak about the importance of what it contains for us. (Thanks to Augsburg Fortress such a Book is available with the readings from the Common Lectionary.) Carrying the Book to its place of honor and reading from the Book in that place might help to focus our attention on the significance of what we are about to hear. The Proclamation of the Word in the sermon could then take place wherever the Preacher thinks will work best for the people there gathered. We need the Word proclaimed loudly and visibly among us!
Imagine a font where water could be “used generously in Holy Baptism to symbolize God’s power over sin and death” (p. 19). This could lead to some pretty outstanding fonts. St. Benedict the African Roman Catholic Church in Chicago has a small lake with a waterfall and thousands of gallons of water in the Entry Hall of their building! Imagine standing around this font and hearing how Jesus “came up out of the water” after his Baptism. Imagine preaching about dying with Christ, being buried with him in the waters of Baptism, and being raised with him to a new life, while standing next to such a font (or in it!). Entrance into the Church, the Holy Body of Christ, takes on a vivid and visual meaning when members of the Body of Christ must pass by such a monumental reminder of Baptism every Sunday to get into the place where they will meet the Holy God, their Savior.
Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of installing immersion fonts, much less small ponds, in our worship spaces. But, if we put the font near the main entry into the Holy Place where the people come to meet God, we immediately have a powerful visual aid. With the font at the Entrance we can teach more vividly that it is through Baptism that we enter into the Kingdom of God, that we are washed in the blood of the Lamb, that we have crossed the Jordan out of slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land, that we have been buried with Christ in Baptism and are now raised with him. Think what it would mean if there was also a way to get the water moving, to get it flowing! Then when we sing “Shall We Gather at the River” from “With One Voice” we would add one more visible dimension to the waters of Baptism in our worship space. We need water at the entrance to our Holy Places! And lots of it!
The Holy Communion
God created us to love touching and tasting and seeing and hearing and smelling beautiful things. God also created an incredible variety of things to touch and taste and see and hear and smell. When Christ promised to be with us, to meet us when we gather, it was not just in some spiritual, intangible way. On the night when he was betrayed he took bread and said, “This is my body.” Then he took the cup of wine and said, “This is my blood of the new covenant given for you.” In typical fashion God has given us a wealth, even an extravagance, of grace. Jesus promises to feed us every time we gather. Over the years we Lutherans have not always made the most of this free gift of God’s love. Jesus never restricted the meal to a limited number of occasions. In fact, as Luther points out in the Large Catechism, Jesus said “do this often.” Of course some worry that we can do this too often. That’s probably true. More than once a day is probably too much. Jesus taught us to ask for “our daily bread” so we probably ought to be satisfied with once a day. But however often we have Jesus’ meal of grace and forgiveness in the place this Sacrament is offered, the vessels that carry the body and blood of Christ to us, and the way we receive it, ought clearly to say to anybody who wanders in that this is “not mere bread and wine such as is served at the table. It is bread and wine comprehended in God’s Word and connected with it” (Large Catechism, Fifth Part: The Sacrament of the Altar). This is the closest connection we are given with out Lord and our God. Even more than having water put on us (though that would have been enough!) and more than having words spoken to us (though that would have been enough!) here is God given in bread and wine for us to eat and drink and make a part of our being. What an amazing thing for the Holy God to do for us.
So what do we do about the table where the meal is offered? The altar is the table for this heavenly banquet. But this table is not just any table like we have in our dining rooms just as this meal is not an ordinary meal. The table is more than a table. Our Lord offered himself as a perfect sacrifice to take away our sins. The table is also an altar where the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus is made real for us today. The altar is also an empty tomb where we see the linens and remember that our Lord has conquered death and gives us life with him. The table/altar that focuses our worship and bears the “bread of heaven” needs to be significant in size and dimensions to visually proclaim the greatness of the gifts of life there provided.
Font, pulpit and altar are the three necessary pieces of furniture in the worship space—not because of some Divine law but through practical necessity. We need water for the Bath. We need a place for the Book. We need a table for the Meal. That these three pieces of furniture are visually significant in some way simply indicates their importance in our worship. When we are received into the Body of Christ through the “washing of regeneration” this should be more than a dabbling with a few drops of water. It is a flood that washes away sin. It is a burial with Christ into death and a raising with him to new life. The Font around which we gather should say to all who see it “Here is a bath that does more than clean the body.” When we hear the Word it should be clear that this is different than the words we hear and read in the newspaper or on television. This isn’t just good news, this is the Good News, the News of our salvation, the News of God’s undying love for all people, the News of Jesus our Lord and our God. The Pulpit from which the Word is proclaimed should say to all, “Here is news like you have never heard before.” When we receive Jesus in this meal there should be nothing to suggest that this meal is just another snack, another fast food meal, another quick pick-me-up. This is food from heaven. This is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” This is Emmanuel, God with us. The Table around which we gather should say to all, “Here you will receive a meal like no other meal on earth.”
This brings us to what we eat at this meal. The statement says “…this church uses bread and wine in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper” (principle 44, p. 29) and “The bread may be leavened or unleavened. The wine may be red or white.” A loaf of bread and some hearty wine. Who can really get excited over paper thin, tasteless pieces of flour and water? What is stimulating about a tiny sip of sugary sweet grape juice? We need bread and wine that tell us through sight and smell and taste and touch that there is a banquet to look forward to. We need to bite into real food and get a good taste of real drink.
There is also a basic understanding in this document. The use of the Means of Grace comes through people and is for people. Font, pulpit, and altar are meaningless pieces of furniture without the people. The house of the Church, therefore, needs to provide some kind of accommodations for the people. This may seem so obvious as to be unnecessary to say. But the seating will teach a lot about what we believe in regard to font, pulpit, and altar and the grace there offered.
Throughout the document we are reminded that the Church has been given pastors, ordained ministers, to serve the Means of Grace. They function at pulpit, font, and altar as presiders. “Called and ordained ministers (emphasis added) bear responsibility for the preached Word in the Church gathered for public worship” (p. 9). “Candidates for Holy Baptism, sponsors, and an ordained minister called by the Church (emphasis added) gather together with the congregation for the celebration of Baptism…” (p. 16). “In witness that this sacrament is a celebration of the Church, serving its unity, an ordained minister (emphasis added) presides in the service of Holy Communion” (p. 27). The called and ordained pastor of a congregation has a significant role to play in the midst of the congregation. A presider oversees the order of a service of worship. This does not mean that a presider does everything. That would be to deny the gifts that all the people of God have to offer. The presider is the one with the responsibility for bringing order to the offering of the gifts of the people gathered, and the one through whom the gifts of grace are given. This gives the presider a significant function within the gathered community. The place where the presider sits, when not in the primary functions at the font, pulpit, and altar, should suggest that the person who sits here is authorized by God and the Church to lead this congregation in worship. The presider’s chair should not be a throne suggesting power over the gathered community. Nor should the presider take a self-deprecating place just anywhere in the community. The presider has significant and awesome responsibilities within the Church given by Christ. The chair of the presider should therefore indicate this responsibility and be placed where she or he can be seen by all, for all should be able to look to the presider for leadership and direction. The chair also should say clearly that the person who occupies this place has authority to be there given by Christ through the whole Church.
This then brings us to the most necessary part of the house of the Church, the place where the people of God gather. The gifts of the Means of Grace and the ordained ministers who preside over them are all given for the good of the people of God, the Church. When we gather to Baptize, to hear the Word, and to receive the Holy Meal we need appropriate space. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Does a set of benches all lined up facing forward really make the Means of Grace most effectively and most efficiently available to the people of God? At one time churches provided no seating. If people wanted to sit they had to bring their own chairs. There was a logic to this. Baptisms were done in one place, lessons and sermons were given in another, and the meal was shared in still another place. Why put in long benches or chairs if everybody was going to keep moving around? Even in small churches, if the Font is located at the entrance it means people have to stand and turn around to participate. Maybe font, pulpit, and altar each need to have their own space with seating around them. This would perhaps suggest moveable seating. Folding chairs may look clumsy and impermanent but they are convenient for easy movement. Individual chairs can get out of line and make a room look messy, but they are much easier to rearrange to suit a particular function or to emphasize the differences in the seasons of the Church year. Besides, must we adjust baptism, preaching, and the meal to suit our seating arrangement? Or might it be more sensible to be able to arrange our seating to enhance our gathering around bath, word and meal? Flexible seating suggests that the people gathered are important to what goes on at font, pulpit and altar. It says that we accommodate people so that they can more effectively participate in their worship. Moveable seating can also suggest that the people here gathered are not an audience gathered to be entertained but a congregation gathered to offer their prayer and praise to God. This also suggests something about where choirs need to be. Choirs are not there to perform for the congregation as to an audience. Choirs are to support the singing of the congregation and to offer songs as means of helping the congregation better worship God in our midst. Where do choirs need to be? Probably behind the congregation if they are to support the singing. Maybe on one side of the congregation so that musicians can lead choir and congregation when that is necessary. It seems that it should never be necessary to have a choir up front in a position that suggests a performance is to be given. God is the one audience member in a congregation. The rest of us are adoring children offering our gifts to God.
There is another aspect to the gathering of the people which we Lutherans have always regarded as good and necessary, the gathering of the people of God for mutual support and consolation. Sometimes this mutual support and consolation occurs best outside of the worship space. The people need a place to gather outside of the space for Bath, Word and Meal. Conversation among individuals isn’t always convenient or desirable during public worship. A large and welcome space for gathering can help bring us together as a family by allowing us to greet one another in peace before coming to the altar to offer our gifts (Matthew 5:23-24), as well as to share the joys and sorrows we bring with us to this place where God meets us. A generous gathering space also allows us to welcome those who are new to our worship. It can be a place that makes them feel comfortable and ‘at home” before they enter into the worship space which may be unfamiliar and a little unnerving the first time.
The last part of the document is entitled “The Means of Grace and Christian Mission.” This is the part that could be easier to ignore than the others. We know we need to be in mission to the world but it can feel so good to gather around a spiritually pleasing worship service and then just go home. What can the house of the Church say about our mission? Altar, font, and pulpit are all clear symbols of profound gifts from God to us. But what do we use to visually proclaim the profoundest gift from God, the gift of God’s people given for the sake of the world? Perhaps wide doors opening out graciously to the world. Doors with glass so that all can peak in and see what’s going on inside and maybe be drawn in to join us. Windows of clear glass all around so that the Church must always look out into the world (not just at some pretty, manicured and fenced-in garden) and be reminded that our reason for gathering to receive God’s gifts is to become gifts from God to the world. Maybe a processional cross or crucifix that is carried in to the worship space to gather us could then lead us back out into the world and to the people we are to serve. Perhaps such a cross literally could be carried outside the building each week and placed there for all to see.
This may be the most difficult part of the document to symbolize but it is no less important that the other Means of Grace listed. The font, pulpit, and altar can be powerful symbols to help us remember that the gifts received at these places are from God. But the people of God are the living symbol of the presence of God in and for the world. Each individual Christian is a symbol of God’s love given to the world. It may be that the Church can only grow when Christians gathered around the Means of Grace can see themselves as Means of Grace to and for the people they meet every day.
One of the tendencies of the people of God over the centuries has been to see ourselves as sheep tended by Christ the Good Shepherd. This is a powerful image in scripture which seeks to remind us that the Creator God who is far above and beyond us also wants to be close to us as a shepherd to sheep. However, we have tended to abuse this image by seeing it as an end in itself. As such we have often seen the building of the Church as the end and not the means. We have raised up chaplain/pastors to care for us in these buildings to help us make it through the week. What we have not always been willing to accept is that the buildings of the Church are really mission-training grounds with teacher/pastors. In this place God comes to be with us, cares for our needs and strengthens us so that we can go out in mission to others. As The Use of the Means of Grace makes clear, “In every gathering of Christians around the proclaimed Word and the holy sacraments, God acts to empower the Church for mission” (Part Four, page 34)