“The Space Always Wins”

“The Space Always Wins”
Guest Reflection By: Glenn Stallsmith


“The space always wins.” That paraphrased summary of the conclusion was arrived by James F. White, a liturgical scholar who taught for many years at Notre Dame. White meant that no matter what theology or vision might be held by a congregation and its pastor, the building they worship in always has the loudest voice in determining how the people encounter God. As someone who studies mainline churches that have adopted contemporary praise and worship styles, I see the triumph of traditional spaces everywhere. You have seen it too—a drum set and guitar amps crammed into a choir loft, or shoved over to the side of a sanctuary, unable to fit in a building that was designed for the pre-microphone 19th century. Even if today’s congregation wants to let loose with loud guitar-driven songs, immersive projection lighting, fog machines, and exuberant bodily expressions, the earlier era’s architecture and furniture will prevent it.

This mismatch between worship space and a people’s piety is not only evident in contemporary worship services. Even in traditional settings, many of our churches contain plaques and memorials inscribed with the names of generous saints whom none of the active and living members can remember. And, of course, nothing seems more out of place than a congregation of 100 people worshiping in a space designed for ten times that many.

When faced with an older space that doesn’t fit with today’s congregation, it is tempting to play the “new wine in old wineskins” card. Sure, some congregations have the resources to build a new space or remodel an old one, and they just need to get on with it. Many of us, however, just do not have that option. We either worship in the building we have, or we don’t worship at all.

Last All Saints Day I decided to address this issue with my congregations. Connecting the theme of that day with the Communion liturgy, which claims that we worship with “people on earth and all the company of heaven,” I directed everyone to notice the empty seats around them. I then invited them to imagine the people who used to sit there, remembering from the time of their youth all the saints who have passed through this space. As we turned in our hymnals to sing the final hymn, I remarked that we would have many more voices joining us than we could hear. Painting an eschatological vision about worship in the next age, we sang that day with a congregation that could not be contained in all the extra seats surrounding us.

Asking people to fill their sanctuaries with memories of past saints is not a long-term solution for congregations who can’t afford their buildings any longer. Nor is it a quick fix for those whose pieties have changed since the time that the sanctuary was constructed. But it might offer hope to people who wonder how to find the blessing in an older space.

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