The Beauty of Holiness

29 02 2008

“Every church building communicates some kind of nonverbal message…While some contemporary church buildings still use spires and vaulted ceilings to suggest God’s awesome holiness, other church buildings have been designed to create a fellowship facility.  These churches can look more like town meeting halls or even theaters.  In some of these churches, the sanctuary becomes a stage, and the congregation becomes an audience.”  

 “In these settings people are comfortable with other people as they enjoy fellowship with one another.  What is often lost in these functional church designs is the profound sense of threshold.  A threshold is a place of transition.  It signals change from one realm to another.”    

It may come as a surprise to learn the above quote is from noted Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul in his book The Holiness of God.  In the 23 years since he made that observation, the truth of it has only become more painfully obvious.   

This was brought home to me recently when we had a rare classical prelude before our Sunday worship service.   One of our talented young married couples was peforming a beautiful piece while “worshipers” entered the “worship space.”   Because music was being performed, the result was that all those entering the church had to talk even louder than usual as they “fellowshipped” with one another before announcements!   

It was painful to watch the couple, who had obviously worked hard in rehearsing the piece, trying to carry on without showing their frustration at being virtually ignored.  It was if the prelude was a nuisance to all of the fellowship that was taking place.   

As I try to teach my children to learn the great things of God, it pains me to realize that they will never have a threshold experience  in the evangelical church we are members of.   The need for threshold is something I’ve only come to think about only in recent years, but of course this is a very human need we all have.  

I lived in an East Coast beach community in the late 80’s and early 90’s where I worked late and came home around midnight.   My job was high pressured and noisy, and I loved to walk on the beach to unwind.  Even in the winter, I would put on my ski clothes and make my way to the edge of the Atlantic, accompanied by my beautiful, long-haired German Shepherd.  We walked for miles undisturbed by nothing but the sound and spray of the surf.  

I felt like some kind of rugged arctic explorer, and the fact that we were usually the only ones on the beach often added an element of spookiness.  I wasn’t much of a Christian then, but I now realize that the enjoyment I got from this was my unconscious desire to seek out God’s creation, and in a way, to get close to the Creator.   I was honoring my need for a threshold experience – to see, hear and feel the awesomeness of God.     

I still have that need, and the only thing that has come to close to my walks on the beach in the middle of the night has been entering into an Orthodox Cathedral during a worship service.  

In today’s urbanized, computized and modernized world, many of us never experience threshold of any kind and that is sad.  This may be the main reason I’ve become so dissatisfied for what passes as “worship” in my evangelical church.  When the Bible says that we should worship God in the “beauty of holiness” a padded chair in an auditorium is not what the Psalmist had in mind.  





6 responses

29 02 2008

I’d never read that Sproul quote before, but I immediately thought of the seeker-sensitive idea of “lowering the threshold” that I used to take on as a purpose as part oc some of the committees I was involved with. I still see this idea when I visit evangelical churches of family and friends. Last time I went to a church like that, (Christmas Eve), I couldn’t stop wondering how many other folks there longed for something that felt holy, something completely different than what we were experiencing. A sermon was given that felt accessible (good I think), but to me, udderly without a sense of otherness and awe of God and what was happening at Christmas time.

I’ve definitely come to a time in my life when I want a threshold. I want a place where I feel like I’m home, but at the same time feel small and, strange to say, unworthy. Not in a shameful way, but I want to feel reverent, so i want to be in a space that demands(?) reverence.

I wonder how many seekers inside and outside the church long for something greater than they are, something holy and mysterious and… A place that feels OTHER because God is OTHER…?

Thanks for the post, JFred. Keep going after it. There is beauty in your search for holiness.

1 03 2008

I’ve always felt the need for a threshold experience. I loved your story of walking your dog on the beach. I’ve always walked my dogs as a way to get away from whatever stress might be in my life. This was especially true, when my children were all teenagers.

As a muscian, I felt devasted for that couple in your church who were trying to create a worship atmosphere. I grew very tired of the increasing noise at the beginning of services. That is something I don’t have to fight against anymore. It is just an unspoken rule that people don’t talk once they enter the temple of an Orthodox church. The atmosphere is very holy. You know that because you’ve experienced Orthodox worship. God bless you as you continue to search.

1 03 2008

Thank you for once again verbalizing what so many of have thought and felt.

The majority of my Christian life was spent in an evangelical setting, and I truly believed that we had the best type of worship, the best teaching, and the best everything. But there wasn’t much in the services that brought one to a threshold. The closest was stirring music, a Christmas Eve service, or a Good Friday service. Even communion became routine after a while, even though the elders tried their best to present it in a fresh way each week. I was aware of something missing, the transcendence that should happen, but I didn’t think there was any way to achieve that, other than to go back to building cathedrals. And since it’s tough to make cathedrals “multi-functional” and cost effective, I knew that wasn’t about to happen!

My concern is that evangelicals have come to the end of their movement. When we left our church last December (and entered the Orthodox church), they had switched their emphasis and mission statement for the church to developing and fostering “community” among the members and those in the geographical area around the church. To me, “community” is something that happens as an outflow of the Spirit working within the Body of Christ – not a result of a bible studies, outreaches, and work days. But, obviously, they sense there is something missing. Unfortunately, they are looking for the answers in the wrong places.

3 03 2008
Bill M

I sent this article to my wife yesterday, with the comment: “See, I’m not the only one who thinks like this…” 🙂 Our church building was built 40 years ago with fellowship and mingling in mind. The route to classrooms is via back portion of the “worship room”. There is no sense of threshold. Last week my wife was feeling the need to pray during the Sunday School hour, and could find no place in the building that was quiet or un-used. The “sanctuary” was full of the sound of musicians practicing, people talking, and children passing through.

Oh, and hello from another “restless evangelical” 🙂

3 03 2008
David Bryan

I find myself similarly frustrated when — yesterday, for example — folks in our (for now) combined church/fellowship hall were talking loudly while the hours were being chanted. Our parish is in the middle of a building plan in which we’re now using half of what will be one big fellowship hall for our worship area. It’s a step up from what we had (which was what we have now, only MUCH smaller), but the sense of threshold which you seek is diminished by the fellowship.

What’s REALLY frustrating is when you go into a place like the Dallas cathedral (no fellowship hall attached to the building) and folks are STILL talking during the hours, the pre- and post-communion prayers, communion itself…sigh…

Lord, have mercy on us all. It is good to know that at least our services facilitate a threshold. You know what they say about leading horses to water, though….

4 03 2008

The holiness is what really brought me into the Orthodox church. I was searching for something sacred, something holy. I can relate to the person who said that his wife wanted to pray but there was nowhere in the church that was quiet and peaceful. It seems like most of the churches that I went to were like that. They were full of “worship” bands that were loud and had to emulent contemporary music.

I love how you really do feel transcended into the heavens in an Orthodox church.

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