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On the Term "Sanctuary" and Presenting the Communion Elements

Our church renovation committee has been talking about our sanctuary. One of our members thinks this term is misleading. Is “sanctuary” a good term to use in church architecture?

The term “sanctuary” can be misleading if people begin to think that the worship space is in itself more sacred or sanctified than other spaces.

In the Old Testament, there was a clear demarcation between the tabernacle (and later, the temple) and the world. The tabernacle was “set apart” space, holy space, a sanctuary. But that was fulfilled and transcended in the New Testament, which teaches that Jesus is the embodiment of God’s presence on earth, and that, when we are united with Jesus, all of us are God’s temples (Eph. 2:21-22; 2 Cor. 6:16). Just as the Old Testament sacrificial rites were fulfilled in Jesus, so too was the need for a literal sacred space.

This New Testament view points to the full scope of God’s redemption. In Christ, there is no dichotomy between sacred and secular time or space. All space is God’s space. And all time is God’s time. This view would suggest using a term like “worship space” instead of sanctuary, focusing on the activity that takes place in the assembly rather than on any intrinsic quality of the space itself.

Our pastoral challenge, however, is that we live in the period between the times. God’s complete redemption of all things, all times, and all spaces is assured. But holiness is not yet pervasive. In that “already, but not yet” context, it continues to be wise to set apart a day for rest and worship, a time for congregational assembly for worship, and a particular space for engaging in that holy activity.

So our choice of terms depends a great deal on a pastoral judgment. In a cultural setting that tends to overemphasize separation between good and bad people, events, spaces and time or to underestimate the scope of God’s redemption, it is pastorally wise to use a term like “worship space.” In a cultural setting that tends to obscure the holiness of God and of the Christian life, it may be pastorally wise to use a term like “sanctuary.” Either way, the choice should be used as an effective teaching moment in the congregation.

At a recent worship committee meeting someone suggested bringing the communion elements forward to the table as part of the service, rather than our usual practice of having the table set prior to the service. Is this appropriate, given that the sacrament emphasizes that these are gifts from God to the people rather than our sacrifice to God?

Historically, Reformed Christians have avoided any implication that the Lord’s Supper involves our sacrifice. Rather it remembers Jesus’ sacrifice, celebrates his nourishing presence among us, and anticipates the heavenly feast of the kingdom. Thus, traditional Reformed practice has been to have the elements on the table ahead of time.

It is also true that since the 1960s several Protestant congregations, including several prominent Reformed ones, have brought back the offering of the gifts, couched in ways that prevent the implication that the Lord’s Supper is our sacrifice. This practice conveys that God enables us to gather up the fruits of creation which God then gives back to us as sacramental food. This approach doesn’t have to diminish the emphasis on God’s action, but rather stresses that God works through us to lavish grace upon us in Christ.

Once again, either approach presents an opportunity for teaching. We need regular reminders that the Lord’s Supper is a vivid, tangible way that God works to nourish, comfort, and challenge us through communion with our risen Lord.

Further Thoughts

Both of these questions are similar in that there is not one right answer for all times and places. In both situations varying options emphasize different theological points. The leadership challenge on questions like these is structuring a discussion process in which a worship committee or church council can work together to discern what is most theologically and pastorally appropriate. One interesting task might be to imagine situations outside your congregation in which each of the varying options might be especially pastorally appropriate. Then ask about which situation your congregation most resembles.

Both of these questions are also similar in that some people may think that they involve theological hairsplitting. No doubt, both could be discussed in an arcane and overly technical way. The leadership challenge here is helping committee members (and the congregation) see the connection between these details and the underlying ways in which the congregation perceives God. Ultimately, our name for the worship space or the timeframe for preparing the table is less significant than the way in which we perceive God. In both committee discussions and in teaching the congregation, leaders should always look for opportunities to say, “Let’s step back and see the bigger picture to explore why this detail is important.”