Michael Spencer’s classic post: The Evangelical Liturgy 1: The Worship Setting
Originally posted Aug. 14, 2009
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New Covenant worship can take place any place and any time. There is no setting specified in the scriptures, neither is there any arrangement of worship externals that we are told to imitate.
Our Roman Catholic friends have a very intentional- and quite fascinating- approach to worship space that seeks to place every house of worship in a pattern that is continuous with the revelation of God in the old and new covenants. Evangelical worship space design is certainly affected by this, but our approach to worship space is more influenced by the pragmatic concerns of worship, the centrality of the Word and the various traditions that influence a particular congregation.
There is nothing in evangelical worship that demands an abstaining from features that might be considered “Catholic.” However, it is likely that as reformation influenced Christians and evangelicals with particular distinctives there will be some attention to other traditions- some local, some historic- that will influence the arrangement of worship space.
What is important is to know that the evangelical worship space is free to be as simple or as complex as a particular congregation may desire it to be. There should be a new covenant sense of freedom in arranging and rearranging the worship space. Evangelicals should understand the concept of sacred space, but in a way that emphasizes the new covenant fulfillment of old covenant designs.
What should a worship space be called? A sanctuary? A worship center? An auditorium? These choices may reflect prevailing theology in the particular congregation, but none are Biblical mandated.
Following an evangelical understanding of the Gospel, however, I would say that an evangelical worship space should, at the minimum, contain:
A table for the Lord’s Supper. (It is unlikely any evangelicals will comfortably refer to this as an altar. I believe this should never be done.)
A baptistry, in keeping with the confessional understanding of the congregation. For some churches, a baptistry may not be possible because of cost or location. (Point to the sprinkling and pouring Protestants.)
A pulpit. Centrally located pulpits speak the centrality of the word in Protestantism, but a split chancel is no hindrance to the centrality of the Word.
A public copy of the scriptures. This recognizes that the Bible is the church’s book, and not just our individual book.
Instruments that are NOT centrally or distractingly located. Again, for some congregations, this is not an issue. I do object to the locating of an ostentatious band or organ in a central visual position.
Art that complements the worship space and is, again, not located in a distracting way. Banners, etc. should flow naturally into the space and not dominate it. For many evangelicals, a cross- not a crucifix- is an appropriate central focus of a worship space. I agree.
No flags of any kind.
Projection Screens are currently becoming a central feature of many worship spaces. Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to their use that will be discussed when we address hymnals and singing. My point would be that screens should be small, retractable and, to whatever extent possible, not EVER placed as a permanent visual presence in the worship space, even if this requires some temporarily distracting movement. The similarity of a large centrally located screen to a movie theater is not insignificant.
Sound systems should operate by the same rule. They should not dominate or distract, but complement and blend in. Over amplification is a worse error than insufficient volume. For many evangelical churches, a limited budget and frequent changes in the worship space will mean that a set of movable speakers may be the best choice. Again, the “club” atmosphere of large and distractingly placed amplification is not helpful.
The same is true of special lighting. What lighting options are used should blend in and not dominate, distract or make the worship space into something else. The temptation to play with sound and visuals is too much for some worship leaders. Restraint is commendable.
Seating is a matter that depends on many varying factors, but there is nothing wrong with comfort, and much wrong with discomfort and a lack of easy entrance and exit. There is much to not like about pews, and much to like about a good collection of chairs that can be rearranged.
I would mention that evangelical worship is free to utilize a great deal of variety in means and presentation, so there is much to commend a worship space that can be easily changed into whatever form is needed for various kinds of presentations. Again, we aren’t looking at our worship spaces as cathedrals, and most churches will not be able to have multiple spaces for multiple kinds of services. If a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service requires flexibility for rearrangement, drama and effects, that is nothing to be avoided.
A worship space for evangelical worship should be flexible, simple, usable by many kinds of ministries and kept free from distractions that could impede its central purpose of a gathering of God’s people around God’s gifts.
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NOTE: Someone asked where I got the liturgy bug as a Southern Baptist. Here is Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, where I was on staff for 3 years.
NOTE FROM CM: Michael’s entire series on the Evangelical Liturgy is available in the archives. The simplest way to access all of them (plus other articles on the subject) is to go to the Categories menu on the right side of the page just above the Blogroll. Pull down the menu and choose “Evangelical Liturgy.”