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