This may surprise you. The space that is used the least in our church is our sanctuary.
If you look at our building usage throughout the week, our sanctuary is almost exclusively used only on Sunday mornings. Yes, an occasional funeral or (increasingly rare) Saturday wedding takes advantage of our sanctuary. And yes, our children and youth will be rehearsing their Christmas production in the sanctuary this fall. But other than that, our sanctuary is used only 3 hours per week.
Our worshiping space has a sacramental quality to it. That is, we give our sanctuary space the power of Divine significance. We believe, not incorrectly, that God has encountered us in our sanctuary space and that because of that, the space is different. It is sacred. It is set-apart. It is Holy.
We have heard God’s Word in our sanctuary. We have sung God’s praises there. We have rejoiced in wedding ceremonies, and wept sorrowfully during funerals in our sanctuary. We have been convicted by preachers in our pulpit, and we have embraced one another in reconciliation and reunion in our worshiping space.
In many ways, our sanctuary is both familiar and foreign. It belongs to us, but we acknowledge that it is the House of God. Everyone is welcome in our sanctuary, but we discourage our youth from playing spooky games in there during Lock-Ins.
In building a sanctuary, our church decided to emulate our ancestors going back to the time of Moses and the Tent of Meeting in the desert. Interestingly, the first reference to a sanctuary in the Bible is from Exodus 15:17 where Moses references it as the place of God’s presence. The sanctuary is the place of liberation, truly a Promised Land, protected and guarded by God.
In time, the sanctuary would become the Temple of God in Jerusalem. And although it was widely believed that God’s presence could not be localized or confined to any one space, the people’s need for an actual residence for God was too hard to ignore.
If the Gospels teach us anything, it is that because of God’s love, God’s presence has been turned loose among us. Readers of Mark’s Gospel will denote that this is a chilling consideration. God cannot be contained. God is with us. God does not rest in a stuffy old room. God bursts through walls, shatters barriers and emerges triumphant from a grave!
This raises a question for most of us: With Jesus as our Savior and King, do we really need a sanctuary? Isn’t God with us wherever we go?
We know that the early church met in people’s homes—again, echoing the radically intimate nature of Christ’s presence in the world. We know that where two or more are gathered, Christ is there. We claim that we are the Body of Christ. God has not only chosen to make his home among mortals; God has made his home within us! And lest we forget, let’s remember that the word ‘church’ is translated from the Greek word, ‘ekklesia,’ which means 'gathering' or 'assembly;' not ‘steepled building’ or ‘ornate meeting space.’
None of this makes our sanctuary any less important. Indeed, our sanctuary serves a vital purpose in the life of our church. It is where we meet together to meet with God. In a world of constant distractions, our sanctuary becomes the place where we give our full attention to God. Yes, God is always with us. And yes, we can ‘be church’ wherever we might choose to do so. So, it is with a spirit of self-determination that we acknowledge that it is our sanctuary where we have chosen to ‘be church’ for these many years. And for that reason alone, our sanctuary has a history that is worthy of our respect and attention.