Abandoning the Sanctuary


I’ve been attending various non-denominational churches for most of my adult life and when the church has had a denomination, they have still leaned heavily toward modern in the modern vs. traditional continuum. Modern music, modern dress, and a modern area set up for worship. Gone are the pews and pulpits and altars. Now we have plush seats, stages, smart lights.

I’m just fine with that. I grew up in a traditional, main-line church, and while there are many things about that that I appreciate about the churches of my youth, I still gravitate toward services that wear their emotions a bit more on their sleeves.

One part of the modern experience that I am less enamored with is the abandonment of the word “sanctuary.” Now we go into the theater or the auditorium for the worship service. And I get it. Those aren’t church-y words, so it might feel less threatening to someone who has had a negative experience in the church.

But sanctuary is a beautiful word. It’s a sacred place. A resting place. A safe place.

A sanctuary is a place where rescue happens.

I don’t like that we have abandoned the use of the word sanctuary in the context of our church buildings, but I fear we lost the concept of sanctuary far before that.

Negative church experiences pile up all around us. People who want nothing to do with the church because they have been abused by those with power. People who want to attend church, but who are turned away because of their past. People who are told that God sees them as an abomination because of their sexual orientation. People who are mocked because of their political beliefs. People who are told they’re not good enough, not clean enough, not beautiful enough, not young enough, not old enough.

We have stopped using terms that might trigger negative associations with the Church, but if we are still continuing the same behaviors that hinder safety, the language doesn’t make much difference. When we put limits on who can really be Christian, by excluding LGBTQ people, or divorced people, or conservative people, or liberal people, the Church isn’t a sanctuary no matter what we call the meeting area. When we demand that people be pristine before they enter, we cease to be a place of rescue.

I still like the term sanctuary, and I will probably use it to describe the place where we gather to sing and read and listen, no matter where I attend. But even more, I want to see the church as a whole, and my own local congregation, become places of safety.

I want to see us reach out to those who are hurting, to those who are oppressed, to those who are marginalized and say, “Come. Lay your burdens down. Rest for a while. Come and find sanctuary.”

Photo by: Antony Oliver

3 thoughts on “Abandoning the Sanctuary

  1. Personally, I like that most modern churches don’t use the word “sanctuary” anymore.

    True “sanctuary” is found only in Jesus, and not in the room of a building. It’s not found in the attitudes, the hearts, the minds or the opinions of others. The old way of thinking is no more or no less a way toward putting on what should be new (Ephesians 4:22-24).

    I find it refreshing that modern churches, at least seemingly, choose not to use the falsities of the word “sanctuary” in naming a room within their building. Any church — old or new — who is speaking into the lives of those who attend there, should be pointing toward Jesus as the only “sanctuary” of their lives.

    1. I think if we want to point to Jesus as our sanctuary, we also must be a people who provide the same. If I bear the name of Christ, I must live in such a way that I am safe for people to approach. Yes, Jesus is our sanctuary, but if his church is a place of hurt and abuse, then how can we hope to point people to him?

      1. I think we do that by living a life of loving Him, loving others and loving ourselves as we’re called to do in Mark 12:30-31. Additionally, in John 14:15, Jesus, Himself, tells us that if we love Him, we are to keep His commands.

        Our churches are full of hurt and abuse because they are comprised of people who are hurting, have been hurt, have abused the love and trust of others, and have been abused themselves. Every one of us falls short, and we always will on this side of eternity.

        Given all of that, we can always still have hope for what HE can do to transform us from the inside out. Placing one’s hopes and expectations on the others we do life with, sit next to or serve with is called for in community. There can be rich rewards experienced in these things, but as we all know, those same people will fall short, as will we.

        The only real sanctuary comes from following Him in whole-hearted obedience and allowing His love and His ways to shine through our very-stained glass lives.

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