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.