December 13, 2017

Why the Table should be Front and Center

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St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa

I have developed a simple position about why I think the Table (or Altar) should be central in the architecture of a Christian church sanctuary.

Remember where I come from. In my youth, this was how most of the traditional Methodist congregations I attended arranged their worship spaces. Two pulpits flanked a central table. Then I had a spiritual renewal in my life as a teenager in a Baptist church. Large, large pulpit in the middle. The communion table also in the center, but below the pulpit (off the “platform”) and used only monthly for communion. Every church in which I served as pastor had a similar arrangement. The pulpit was central not the table.

We were proud of this. It signified that we were people of the Word first. That the reason we came together was to hear God speak through the preached Word. Not being a sacramentally-minded people, communion was an ordinance, along with baptism. It was a symbolic representation of Jesus dying for my sins, giving his body and blood, and we remembered that specifically once each month when we partook.

As for baptism, except for one congregation where baptisms were done in ponds outside the church building, they all had baptismal pools too. The baptismals were centrally located, usually somewhere visible as an opening in the wall up behind the pulpit. As an prominent feature of the sanctuary, they only came into play when we had baptisms, which was hit and miss depending on how many children were growing up to understand and accept Jesus and who was converted through evangelistic ministry. Otherwise curtains hung in the opening, unless, like in one church where I served, the decorating committee saw the space as advantageous for seasonal displays. Then God forbid we would have a baptism because of all the work it would take to dismantle and then reassemble the Christmas village or spring floral arrangement! Baptism services were considered special celebrations, not an ordinary part of Christian worship, since baptism was essentially a new believer’s first public act of confessing the faith. But that was all. After that, there was no more talk about baptism. The curtains were drawn.

So, in most of the churches I attended, this aspect of the architecture and arrangements communicated what was most important and what was secondary and tertiary in our worship practices:

  1. The preaching of the Word
  2. Communion
  3. Baptism

In the few discussions I had with people who actually thought about this over the years, those who considered this the best arrangement usually had a strong conviction about preaching being the reason Christians came together. For a long time, most of them didn’t even talk about “worship” other than to call what we were doing a “worship service.” The service was two parts: (1) the preliminaries, (2) the preaching. In some cases there was part (3) the invitation, or the response to the preaching. Everything in the service either looked forward to or back at the sermon. Depending on the church or service, the sermon was either evangelistic or focused on edification through teaching. Either way, we came together to hear the Word. Therefore, the pulpit was central.

8422740080_9236fc8325_zOn the other hand, we were always taught that the reason the Catholics and Lutherans and other “high church” folks put the pulpit to the side was because they didn’t value preaching as much and put more emphasis on communion (I don’t think I ever heard the word Eucharist). The people I worshiped with were intentionally non-liturgical for many reasons, and one of those reasons was what they perceived as the subjection of the Word to the liturgy, which led to the Lord’s Table. The Mass was more about the ritual acts surrounding communion than preaching or teaching. And  they were expressing something accurate. In his book on the Eucharist, Roman Catholic Fr. Ronald Rolheiser says plainly: “The message is also clear in the architecture: we gather first and foremost around the Eucharist, and the Word takes second place.” 

It seems to me that one of the reforms Luther and others championed was to equalize the balance between Word and Table. Neither is more or less important. Worship involves participating in a service of Word and Table. Luther elevated the Word, but certainly didn’t swing to the opposite pole, where revivalists have discounted the Table in favor of the Word.

The baptismal pool in most liturgical churches also communicates something different than the churches I knew. In Catholic churches there is a font when you enter the sanctuary to remind worshipers that we enter the Christian life through baptism and it is our continuing source of life. In some of the Lutheran churches where I’ve worshiped, the font is prominent in front where one can be reminded of baptism as he or she is going forward for communion. The ongoing significance of baptism in the Christian’s life is reinforced by having the font among the people, accessible to the people.

Ideally, then, I would think the arrangement of a sanctuary should communicate a balance of emphasis on Font-Word-Table.

Nevertheless, I have concluded that the Table should be central and prominent in this arrangement. Why?

The way I see it, the Table communicates more than just the importance of the Eucharist (or communion, Lord’s Supper, whatever your terminology). A table is a piece of furniture most of us have in our homes, and it has traditionally represented the place where the family gathers for both ordinary and special occasions. It is where we eat together, talk to one another, and welcome guests. It is the family table. It is where we meet to be a family.

This is why the Table should be front and center in a church sanctuary. Not because the Eucharist is more important than the Word, but because the Table alone is a big enough symbol to include all three of the central practices of worship.

  • It encompasses the Font, because the very reason we have a place at the Table is because we are part of the family (or potentially so).
  • It encompasses the Pulpit, because the Table is where the family talks to one another, where elders instruct the younger, where we learn and grow together.
  • It encompasses the Table itself, of course, because it is the setting where we come to receive the nourishment of Christ’s body and blood.

If the pulpit is front and center, it communicates that the sanctuary is primarily a place to sit quiet and listen — not a bad thing, but certainly not comprehensive enough to describe what Christians are to do when we come together. At worst, it suggests that the church is a lecture hall, a classroom, or a seminar.

Unlike a pulpit or lectern, a table is inviting, and it calls us to consider ourselves God’s family. And that’s why we come together — to be God’s family, to meet around the Table with our risen Lord and with one another.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    ” . . . He is the life according to His nature as God,
    and when He became united to His flesh, He made it also to be life-giving”

    (Session 1, Council of Ephesus, Letter of Cyril to Nestorius [A.D. 431]).

  2. Robert F says:

    In addition to the three good reasons you list for keeping the Table front and center, I think there is a fourth:

    It encompasses the lectern, because it is where the Word, understood as the publicly shared texts of Scripture in which we remember his sacrifice for us, makes known the presence of Christ in and among his people in the shared meal of the Holy Communion.

  3. Eeyore says:

    Of course, a rationalized faith (a faith centered on theology, text and the intellect) is going to put the pulpit over the table. At their most extreme, the Puritans had two-hour sermons twice a week and had communion once a year.

  4. Baptism – becoming a part of the family. Lectern – hearing Gods words. Table- fellowship in the body and blood of Christ. While I agree all three are necessary I agree with the table at the center. It is there that I am fed and nourished by the risen Christ after I hear the word with my family.

  5. grberry says:

    The architectural placement of these items is symbolically significant to those who reflect upon them. Similarly, there was for a time in the area where I now live a pattern of painting church doors red to reflect that we enter church through the blood of Christ. That no longer is a pattern.

    We live in a culture that doesn’t assume symbolism. So this probably is not noticed by most who attend churches. How do we get people to attend to symbolism? How do we teach them what the symbols around them mean? I took an Art History class my first year in college, and recall being taught that the pictoral elements in a particular medieval painting of a saint at one of the local art museums served to identify the subject of the painting and tell the story of his martyrdom without depicting the incident. Had I approached that painting without a teacher, I’d have known none of it, and appreciated the painting a lot less.

    When I wrote poetry, I drew upon a common body of experience to power metaphors and images in the poem. But I didn’t create it. And it isn’t entirely self-sustaining. One poem used “Rand McNally” instead of “map” – but that would mean nothing now to those of the GPS generation.

    • “The architectural placement of these items is symbolically significant to those who reflect upon them.”

      Excellent statement of the problem.

      “How do we get people to attend to symbolism? How do we teach them what the symbols around them mean?”

      Not sure this is the solution. I grew up speaking Christianese, so I’m familiar with symbolic language. Fundagelicals have a love/hate relationship with symbolism. We never had a cross in the church because it was seen as an “idol” and we supposedly worshiped a savior, not a cross. Meanwhile, the most symbolic book in the Bible, Revelation, was taught “literally.”

      If the purpose of a symbol is to communicate meaning, maybe we should use symbols that already have meaning. The Madonna and Child were persistent images for centuries, but seem less popular today. Same with the Pieta. Why is that? Why not look forward to symbols that will speak to a 21st century audience without the need for translation?

      • “Fundagelicals have a love/hate relationship with symbolism. “

        Rick, no they don’t. Mostly they just don’t get symbolism, or at least are suspicious of it.

        ‘Cept the U.S. flag at the back of the sanctuary.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          And Pastor’s magnified face on all the Telescreens.

        • Brianthedad says:

          back? who puts it back there? Ours is up front, to the left of the altar rail, with the Christian flag to the speaker’s right. our pastor, a navy veteran here in a military town, insists on that location, in spite of US flag code to the contrary. Says it’s to show that in our church, the kingdom of Christ is above the nation. To which I often wonder: then why not move them both to the narthex? With the grief he already catches from the reversal, he’d be run out on a rail if he removed them from the sanctuary altogether. Gotta give the big megachurch down the road props, though. During a recent Sunday visit, no flag was to be seen in the sanctuary/auditorium. Fog machine, yes, but flags, no.

  6. Mike, the 9Marks movement disagrees with you:

    Relegating preaching to secondary status is simply not an option for any church that wants to pattern itself after Scripture. Throughout the Bible, the exposition of God’s Word is central to the life of God’s people.
    [ http://9marks.org/article/class-iii-preaching/ ]

    But I like what you’re saying. Emphasis on Jesus instead of man’s interpretation of bible as law.

    • No one in the 9 Marks movement would believe me if I reiterated that my point here is not to devalue preaching nor lift the sacraments over it, but to see the Table as a symbol that encompasses them all and is capable of communicating a full-orbed understanding of Christian worship.

      Too bad. Their loss, not mine IMO.

      • It’s not that you’ve devalued preaching—although that might be OK too—but that 9Marks has elevated it. And it must be expository preaching.

        I’ve decided there are no expository sermons anyway. Break down any one of them and it’ll become topical, no matter how tightly it sticks to the text. It becomes the preacher’s interpretation—with selected illustrations, anecdotes and backup texts—of the text of the day. Worse yet, if the text had been hand-picked it may have been to prove a point. If the preacher were going chronologically through a book of the bible at least he’d have a shot at doing an expository sermon.

        Let’s just call them all topical and be honest.

        This “table front / table rear” discussion may appear foolish to some, Mike, and in a lot of churches I’m sure that table is placed where it is quite innocently or out of habit. But, if intentionally placed, by a knowledgeable clergy, the position of the table does speak volumes.

        • But, I should say, placement of the table shouldn’t be a hill to die on. I know of churches that have argued fiercely about rearranging furniture, or the color of the carpet. Not worth it, nor is the argument about the flag. I keep my mouth shut about the flag, much as I think it should be gone out of there. Somebody here mentioned Grace first, and I think you’ll agree.

        • And it must be expository preaching.
          Interesting. There is not a single example of expository preaching in the NT.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Relegating preaching to secondary status is simply not an option for any church that wants to pattern itself after Scripture. Throughout the Bible, the exposition of God’s Word is central to the life of God’s people. — 9 Marks

    http://nakedpastor.com/2013/05/who-is-it-all-about-anyway/

  8. StuartB says:

    Theologically, I agree the table should be center. Experientially, I’ve had more than quite enough of “come to the altar” in my lifetime. The revivalists did a number on me in my childhood. It wasn’t a successful service if most of the church hadn’t walked the aisle and taken a knee and gotten right with Jesus, with many tears and body wrecking sobs.

    Let me put it another way.

    Grace should be front and center. The law shouldn’t. The law has no place in a Christian worship service. No, not even to remind you hard about your need for grace.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Ever notice that you find “Altar Calls” ONLY in non-liturgical churches with NO altar — not even a Table?

      • Christiane says:

        Does anyone know why non-liturgical Christians call them ‘altar’ calls?

        • StuartB says:

          Is your all on the altar of sacrifice laid/your heart does the spirit control?

          But you cannot have rest,
          Or be perfectly blest,
          Until all on the altar is laid.

  9. Rick Ro. says:

    A few weeks ago, several folks in my church were talking about unity (healthy unity, i.e. unity in Christ), and I made the comment that I think the only true unity in Christ comes through communion. We all have our own view of God and Christ, we all have our own “theology,” if you will, but it’s really only at the Table and through Communion where all that falls away and we are truly unified in Him and with Him.

  10. StuartB says:

    The service was two parts: (1) the preliminaries, (2) the preaching. In some cases there was part (3) the invitation, or the response to the preaching. Everything in the service either looked forward to or back at the sermon.

    I know I’ve said this before, but a lot of traditions, and especially some of the Lutherans ones I’m getting exposed to here, strike me as “medieval”. Tongue in cheek comment, but let me say a bit more.

    That quote above makes perfect sense in a medieval, agrarian culture. People were largely illiterate. They didn’t have time to read, let alone study. They had the weekly/daily homilies and larger messages to teach them how to live and what was expected of the serfs.

    Move forward a few hundred years, Age of Enlightenment, now more people could read, more people had access to the scriptures, and everyone had a chip on their shoulder about being intellectual. Preachers had to work harder to convince others. The sermon got more and more important. Especially amongst city dwellers, they were the smart ones, they needed the intellectual thinking and persuasion. Around here we start seeing a firm divide between the educated/uneducated (insert whatever terms you’d prefer); we don’t need no book learnin’, keep the preacher loud, don’t use fancy words, etc.

    And here we are now. Many people have free time to study and read, access to scriptures, etc, whether they choose to use that time or not. But our church services haven’t kept up to the times. Certain systems in place are still rooted in that ancient agrarian medieval setting, such as the extreme emphasis on Law/Grace as if it’s a new thing that everyone needs to be reminded of weekly. Or the worship service style left over from the rider revivalists. Or the long sermon left over from the steam era.

    And we have traditionalists in all traditions arguing their way is the best way, maybe even the sole biblical way. There’s no incentive to question your own traditions when you can point at everyone’s elses’ for being deviant and therefore wrong.

    So…the table vs the pulpit. What is the point of the Christian service? And why? And how did it come to be?

    etc

    • Stuart, I know you’re being tongue in cheek, but moving the focus to the pulpit began long before the Enlightenment. It can’t be blamed on that! 😉

  11. “What is the point of the Christian service? And why? And how did it come to be?”

    Those are the correct questions to ask first.

    If the answer to the first is: “For Christians to unite in worship of God,” then the focus will naturally include the table, at least in the most significant Christian meetings. Early Christian gatherings were most certainly about Christians worshiping as Christians, as obvious as that sounds, and that the Eucharist was central was only natural. Liturgical elaborations grew over time, incorporating elements that were generally helpful and at other times perhaps less so, based both on bottom-up folk elements and top-down canon law. But the main point is that Christian worship being about Christians directing their hearts towards God governed the shape of the services.

    If, on the other hand, the answer to the first question is: “To draw non-Christians to Christ,” then revivalistic tendencies will dominate, and it’s not surprising that the shape of the service will bear little resemblance to that of the liturgists. The table “gets in the way” of the “altar,” so to speak. So long as such an emphasis is present, even if not totally dominant, it will change the nature of the service. It can hardly be otherwise.

    • The purpose is for Christians to come together as God’s family to commemorate what God did in Christ to make them his family, to meet with the Risen Lord in their midst, and to encourage one another in the way of Christ. From the beginning, this was done at meal gatherings, which the liturgy is patterned after. Worship is “Christian Sunday Dinner,” and the Table is central to that.

      • Stephen says:

        A excellent point Mike. Sadly, abuses at the table seem to have been the original impetus for splitting off Communion from the meal gatherings.

        The rural Georgia Southern Baptist congregation I grew up in was centered on the Word. Preaching. I do not regret this. It was one of the last places in our culture where the Word (and the word) was taken seriously. And I certainly do not regret having grown up absorbing the sonorous rhythms of the KJV.

        But the Lord’s Supper meant little to me. Any meaning it might have had was extruded in fear of ostentation. (You “high church” folks would have been much amused over the agonized discussions of whether we should get stained glass windows!) It was done infrequently almost as an obligation. And baptism? Well as you say that was something you did once when you got saved and never thought about again.

        When we grow up a certain way we sometimes never think to ask why we do the things we do the way we do them. It’s only later when you’re presented with alternatives that you begin to question. I was overwhelmed the first time I attended a liturgical service. It was a powerful experience to be presented unabashedly with everything you had been taught to suspect.

        When you walk into an ancient cathedral (or a mosque or a Hindu temple I might add; I’ve had the same experience in all) you know immediately why you are there. Every detail conspires to lift you beyond yourself, to alter your consciousness. To make you aware of another space penetrating the one we ordinarily inhabit. Oh you can explain it all if you must. But the ancients knew you must engage the senses and the imagination and in a very real sense, as with love or jazz, if you have to ask you’ll never know. It’s experienced directly or not at all.

        I lived in Atlanta for many years and a new minister arrived in the church I attended. He instituted a Christmas Eve service that consisted entirely of Communion. The conditions were these: it was done in total silence; the church auditorium was illumined only by candle light; at the end of the service the congregation sang a predetermined hymn together a cappella and departed. Not much I suppose if you’re used to a high Mass but the effect was transforming.

        An apparent paradox. Words can conceal and silence can reveal. And true communion can be achieved in the hush and the flicker of a candle can illumine the whole world.

  12. Because it needs to be said:

    “May the fourth” be with you. Alwayth.

  13. So… what kind of service was it when Eutychus fell out of the window?

  14. Andrew Periman just wrote about a narrative-historic take on the Lord’s supper–http://www.postost.net/lexicon/lord-s-supper-narrative-historical-perspective

    I read him regularly and a lot of his stuff flies over my head, but I think that’s good for me. And this particular post gives the reminder of the banquet imagery that Jesus uses a number of times.