A place of refuge or safety.
A holy place; a temple or church.
Language reveals much about who we are as people and the values we uphold. Recently, my wife, Kacie, and I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (and no, we are not Catholic). Setting aside the gaudiness of the statues and the absurdity of the various relics that people were venerating (many of which were really cool, but before which no person should bow), it had the sense of a place that was separate from the outside world. As tourists, photographers, and various people wandered through the building, there was a sense of respect given toward its purpose. It was a safe place for those desiring to pray, worship, think, write, or sit in silent reflection.
A word that has left the language of many churches is the word Sanctuary. Church buildings themselves used to viewed as sanctuaries, a place of refuge or safety. Even legal authorities would not enter a place of worship against the will of the priest, pastor, or other church leader. When a person entered the building, it was for the purpose of worship, rest, and safety from the outside world. It was a place of healing. In many ways, the building was a symbol of the qualities the church was to exemplify. The word Sanctuary carries with it the implication that you would be protected, that you could trust those within. Today, many churches have begun calling their buildings Worship Centers in an effort to modernize their language. However, the rebrand of what was a Sanctuary as a Worship Center reveals more than a desire for relevance, it reveals a sad truth about what we’ve become.
A Worship Center very much resembles a concert hall. It is a destination, not a community meeting space. Parishioners, or church members, attend a service with a very large stage, bright lights, a professional band, and a motivational speaker, then we call it worship. I don’t have a problem with any of these things in essence. There’s definitely something that is less than worshipful about throwing away excellence under the false guise of idolization of talent. Handing God our leftover crap, rather than taking the time to play our instruments skillfully or speak in an effective manner, in the name of spiritual spontaneity is a complete farce and should embarrass those who seek to glorify God. But, the polished talent and the expository preaching are not the purpose of Christianity, they exist to enhance our faith and draw our focus to God. When they are the focal point of what we refer to as our Christian faith, then we’ve derailed.
Back to the notion of a Sanctuary…
Even if we decided to reclaim the label of Sanctuary for a building, or room within a building, can we ethically claim that’s what it is?
Do our churches provide safe havens, or are they gossip factories?
Do our churches protect, or do they hurt?
Do our churches teach in a way that results in submission to God, or simply affirm how we want to live?
Is our attention drawn to the supernatural, or to the person on a stage or in front of the room?
Do our churches provide refuge, or are they superficial social clubs for professing Christians?
Do our churches provide rest, or do they require endless hours of volunteerism and program involvement?
Do our churches accept all who enter, or do they discriminate?
A church can be a sanctuary with or without a building, it is dependent on the mindset of that community of believers. I would argue that many churches in the U.S. should absolutely think of themselves as a Worship Center, because they have no business using the word Sanctuary. I hope that changes. I hope that I can model in the church where I serve what it means to be a Sanctuary for those who enter.