Seeking Sanctuary and Finding None…

One of those old words used for a church building was “sanctuary”.  This word means “sacred place” and has also been noted as a place of refuge, most notably in providing a safe haven for those who are being hounded by the world. One of the sad realities to being a church that is so enamored with interacting with the world’s culture is that it eventually will remove the idea of sanctuary.

Do our practices still embrace such a mentality about sacred space and safe haven from the world?  With all of the “cultural relevance” discussions that have so wreaked havoc in the church over the past couple generations, we have seen so much of the world come into the church and boot out very distinctive things of “sanctuary” disappear.  Music is just one of them.  Vestments may be another (the clothing of the preacher ought to reflect something holy going on).  Vocabulary is surely another one (the church uses different language than outside, because we are in sanctuary; and for those who do not know, guess what that is your time to learn what those words mean).  Preaching stern Law and pure Gospel can be another (but that would require humbly submitting to the task of preaching rather than the excitement of giving “relevant” messages).  Then there are the various things and programs which have replaced the means of grace as far as what makes people come and stay in church (whether they be worship style, small groups, catchy programs, or anything else that people think grows or sustains the church).  All of this starts to make the sanctuary look, sound, and feel more and more like the world around.  In the end there is no sanctuary any more, as people gather in such a worldly fashion created by their culture (and the latest cultural fads) to find no refuge visible before them.  It looks just like the world in which they live.  The music they hear is the same as they did in the traffic jam on the way to the boss who wears the same suit the preacher is wearing.  And instead of hearing Law and Gospel, they hear a motivational pep-talk or self-help lesson the same way they would from their counselor last week.  They need to hear of the things God has done for them and instead they hear what they can do for themselves.  It is relevant alright, the same relevance that drained them throughout the week at work and home.  Where is the sanctuary?  Where are they reminded that there is something outside of this existence?  Where is any mystery left?  Where is heaven on earth?

Do our church services provide sanctuary for our people?  How much does the world find its way into our worship and destroy the refuge for poor souls hounded by the world?  These are questions which each pastor needs to ask for himself.   Souls do not need more of the world and its culture – they get plenty the other six days of the week.  Provide them a place and time away from world and culture, a place and time in which they belong by right of their baptism – the Church catholic, in which they may hear and receive that rest which only Christ can give.


About Pastor Joshua Scheer

Pastor Joshua Scheer is the Senior Pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He is also the Editor-in-chief of Brothers of John the Steadfast. He oversees all of the work done by Steadfast Lutherans. He is a regular host of Concord Matters on KFUO. Pastor Scheer and his lovely wife Holly (who writes and manages the Katie Luther Sisters) have four children and enjoy living in Wyoming.


Seeking Sanctuary and Finding None… — 24 Comments

  1. This is a great essay.

    When I saw it right below the ULC pictures, I identified the title with that congregation: “Seeking Sanctuary and Finding None”

    They find sanctuary, I am certain, in the sure promises of God.

    I wish that they could count on earthly sanctuary in the embrace of their fellow Christians, especially those on the MNS BOD, who claim ownership of their church building and are planning to raze it via a false show of right.

  2. One clue that things are amiss is when children run up and down the aisles, around the altar, into the pulpit, etc. because there’s no parental oversight or discipline. And then when the pastor gently reminds the tots of respect for “sacred space” he’s labeled a legalistic killjoy.

    Excellent post!

  3. In my area there was a large non-denom ‘church’ that held unsanctioned amateur boxing matches in their “sanctuary” until one of the participants died as a result. That’s how bad it has gotten. So much for sacred space. Nobody seems to have thought it a bad idea until the fatality.

  4. Three cheers for Pastor Scheer! One need only look at examples of baptistification – although that is perhaps being unkind to Baptists! – such as Lakepointe to see that such “worship” makes impossible any sense of sharing in the heavenly worship portrayed by Saint John in the Book of Revelation as we receive the true Body and Blood of the God-Man in the Sacrament of the Altar. There we join “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven,” with the holy seraphim who veil their faces in the presence of God. There can be no doubt as to what Dr. Walther would have to say about this pitiful devastation: “Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the houses of worship of the latter look like mere lecture halls in which the hearers are only addressed and instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world”(Adiaphora, in Essays for the Church:CFW Walther, Vol.I, p. 194). I love the words of Kurt Marquart who in answering the question, What is the meaning of the question: Will there be a Lutheran Church in the 21st century? had this to say: “It cannot mean a glib recipe for success, like the popular sacrilege of ‘goal-setting,’ with the goal of Lutheran survival assured by keeping abreast of the most up-to-date trends with a Pandora’s box full of clever methods and techniques. What will ‘survive’ in this way may well call itself ‘Lutheran,’ but it will have nothing to do with the Lutheran confession, which on the contrary will be happily-clappily trampled underfoot to the the soft seduction or the raucous savagery of ‘Christian music'”(The Church in the 21st Century: Will There Be a Lutheran One? in All Theology is Christology, p. 181f).

  5. @Pastor Charles McClean #4

    Re: What you said and Pr. Scheer:

    Then there are the various things and programs which have replaced the means of grace as far as what makes people come and stay in church (whether they be worship style, small groups, catchy programs, or anything else that people think grows or sustains the church).

    Is it too much to ask, “See you Sunday?” Is the litmus test for success now how busy parishioners are at church during the week?

  6. I may be treading on thin ice here but I have for more than forty years thought that making the level of involvement in church activities the test of the Christian life is the modern equivalent of the medieval understanding of monasticism. In the middle ages the Church in effect said, “If you want to be a real Christian, become a monk or nun.” For far too long the impression has been given in our circles that “if you want to be a real Christian, become involved in church activities – small groups, evangelism programs, etc. etc. etc.” And then the measure of “success” becomes the numbers of such people involved! I believe it is Dr. Norman Nagel who has said, “all mathematics is of the Law!” And it is one the many delicious ironies of that American “Evangelicalism,” which so many of our congregations have sadly embraced, that it is anything but evangelical! Everywhere one senses the “Lash of the Law” rather than the joy of the Gospel. How far removed this all is from Dr. Luther’s understanding of vocation, of what it means to be a Christian! For example, when instructing us on how to prepare for confession he says, “Here consider your station according to the Ten Commandments, whether you are a father, mother, son, daughter, etc.” There in those very ordinary daily relationships is where we live (or do not live) as the children of God. And in an age as hurried and stressed as this, we pastors especially must be very careful not to burden our people with incessant demands for “involvement” but rather jealously guard what limited time our people have to be with their spouses and children, parents, relatives, and friends. Surely the very concept of “success” is part and parcel of a theology of glory which invariably wishes to make the kingdom of God visible, tangible – yes, measurable! The worship of “success” is idolatry. Even the outcome of the preaching of the Gospel is entirely in God’s hands as CA V instructs us: “Through [the Gospel and Sacraments] as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where He pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” Needless to say common sense dictates that we should on the one hand embrace our fellow human beings (even our enemies!) with an unselfish love and on the other hand not – foolishly – place obstacles in the path of those whom Christ would draw to Himself.

  7. Thank you Pastor Scheer for your fine essay. I grew up in the 1950’s and church and worship were quite a bit different than today. I was taught from little on up that you never talked to your neighbor before the church service started. You would of course, acknowledge them with a smile and nod of the head, but you wouldn’t have a conversation with them. Before the service started, you bowed your head and said a silent prayer. It was peaceful and one was able to mediate perhaps on the hymns that were to be sung or the readings for the day. Being in church was truly a sanctuary. Today it is like going to a baseball game or some other secular activity. Loud conversations are heard all around and it is very hard to concentrate on your prayers before the service. After the service was the time to talk with your friends and acquaintances.
    I think what’s missing today is a sense of reverence. After all, it is God’s house where we hear His Word spoken to us and His gifts of forgiveness and life given to us.

  8. @Old Time St. John’s #1
    You are right about ULC. The ultimate sanctuary is in Christ, but it is sure nice to have a building which tries to reflect or symbolize such rest.

    @Rev. James Schulz #2
    You sound like a legalistic killjoy 🙂 Good point.

    @James Sarver #3
    Yeah, I have known churches that have a basketball hoop behind the altar.

    @Rev. James Schulz #5
    For those who would like to measure by numbers, that is one area they like to measure.

    @Pastor Charles McClean #6
    You are spot on, there is a new monasticism going on. Thank you for the Nagel.

    @Diane #7
    Reverence is gone in many places. From what the pastor wears to how he conducts himself he teaches the people. Everything he does teaches something. This includes bringing in the world and its irreverence for things holy. In the OT, there was an entire group of people set to determine things holy, things common, and things unclean – they were called the priests… hows that for the priesthood of the baptized?

  9. Diane, I too grew up in the 1950s and know exactly what you mean. The lack of prayerful silence before services is yet another sad example of the loss of any sense that the church building is “none other than the house of God, and…the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). Here, too, I may be treading on thin ice, but we pastors are all too often not a good example to our people in this respect! The yearly Symposium on the Lutherans Confessions at Fort Wayne is one of the highlights of my year and the services in the seminary chapel are wonderful, but the loud conversation (among the clergy attending the Symposium!) before the services is truly distressing and utterly unhelpful in preparing for worship. In recent years there has been a massive loss of any sense of reverence in the house of God, something that could be taken for granted within living memory. It seems that we have forgotten the words of the prophet Habakkuk: “The Lord is in His holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before Him”(Habakkuk 2:20). Although not to be taken literalistically, there is still something to be said for what used to appear in Sunday bulletins: “Before the Service speak to God. During the Service let God speak to you. After the Service speak to one another.” I truly believe that the recovery of prayerful silence in our churches is far more important to genuine worship than ceremonial embellishments. A cacophony of voices – even during the organ prelude! – is utterly destructive of any prayerful spirit of waiting on God. Of course when “worship” takes on the character of entertainment – as it does in our baptistified churches – there is no reason whatever why the behavior of “the audience” (as it is in fact called in such circles) should be any different than that of the audience at any other entertainment.

  10. I wonder how many of our issues concerning reverence, approach to the service, and building structures have come from the use of two words, “worship service.” Two tiny words that drastically change the perception of what is happening.

  11. Thank you Pastor Scheer. This is very edifying. I’ll share your words with my adult Bible class tomorrow. We will be examining emerging churches, and your essay will make a thought provoking counter-point.

    “How lovely is your dwelling place,
    O LORD Almighty!
    My soul yearns, even faints,
    for the courts of the LORD;
    my heart and my flesh cry out
    for the living God.” Psalm 84:1-2

  12. Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again

    “The problem with new-style churches isn’t just that they’re ugly – they actually distort the Faith and lead Catholics away from Catholicism.”

    “So argues Michael S. Rose in these eye-opening pages, which banish forever the notion that lovers of traditional-style churches are motivated simply by taste or nostalgia. In terms that non-architects can understand (and modern architects can’t dismiss!), Rose … shows conclusively how the traditional church communicates the Faith, while the modern one simply doesn’t.

  13. I teach my confirmads you can figure out the theological emphasis of a congregation with in the first two minutes of walking in the door. 1st question I tell them to ask is, “what is the center of attention?”

  14. @Ted Crandall #12

    “The problem with new-style churches isn’t just that they’re ugly – they actually distort the Faith and lead Catholics away from Catholicism.”

    So Lutherans should embrace new-style churches, right? We want to lead Catholics away from Catholicism. Or is preserving tradition and liturgy more important than things like justification by faith and distinguishing law and gospel? Maybe having a variety of practices and architecture that all put Christ and the Sacraments in the center teach Christian freedom, as opposed to papal authority and obedience to tradition or a magisterium.

  15. @revaggie #14
    Did you ever notice that when you walk into a “traditional” church building/sanctuary (usually Catholic) that you feel the need to whisper?

    Did you ever notice that when you walk into a “contemporary” church building/sanctuary (usually Evangelical/non-denominational/American Protestant) that you don’t feel the need to whisper?

    That says something about the power of architecture and sacred space and whether it is working for or against the message you are trying to communicate.

    Little story here. For our 20th wedding anniversary, my wife and I went to Paris. At the more popular cathedrals we visited, representatives of the cathedral were on hand to instruct tourists to take off their caps when they entered, take no flash pictures, and yes, whisper. Signs (in American English) were not enough. The cathedral was an active place of prayer as well as a cultural/historic landmark.

  16. @Ted Crandall #16

    This has been an on-going issue, hasn’t it? What did Walther say?:

    It is truly distressing that many of our fellow Christians find the difference between Lutheranism and Papism in outward things. It is a pity and dreadful cowardice when one sacrifices the good ancient church customs to please the deluded American sects, lest they accuse us of being papistic! Indeed! Am I to be afraid of a Methodist, who perverts the saving word, or be ashamed in the matter of my good cause, and not rather rejoice that the sects can tell by our ceremonies that I do not belong to them?… the Lutheran liturgy distinguishes Lutheran worship from the worship of other churches to such an extent that the latter look like lecture halls in which the hearers are merely addressed or instructed, while our churches are in truth houses of prayer in which the Christians serve the great God publicly before the world. – Essays for the Church, Volume 1:194

  17. I grew up Lutheran. I still remember, as a college student, visiting a medium-sized non-Lutheran church: Simple stage, no cross, no bulletin, no stained glass.

    I waited for the organ prelude. There was no organ, no instruments at all.

    I expected a pastor in robes. The church started with a warm welcome from an elder in a simple jacket and tie.

    And then the hymn-singing began — joyous, vibrant, hearty four-part a cappella singing!

    Without a bulletin, my eyes were almost always up front. Elders guided the congregation through. I paid attention.

    The experience made an impression, and made me think about the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our life together: God condescending to us, and God living in us to bless one another.

    I love the old German Lutheran Gothic church architecture. But what good are rich architectural symbols if the faith of the people is cold? How much will symbols add to the faith of a people who praise God for his grace and love each other with devotion?

    The Lord looks on the heart.

  18. @Carl H #20
    I’ve heard stories like that except it’s from a non-Lutheran who walks into a German Gothic Lutheran church and draws the same conclusion:

    “The experience made an impression, and made me think about the horizontal and vertical dimensions of our life together: God condescending to us, and God living in us to bless one another.”

    Still, there are objective standards by which we can draw the conclusion:

    …the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence. Nearly all the usual ceremonies are also preserved,… – Augsburg Confession XXIV

  19. The Sanctuary in St. John’s is almost 100 years old and the stained glass windows are world class. YEsterday as the gospel was rightly preached:) the Lord of creation saw fit to move the clouds and illuminate the sanctuary in beautiful natural light, so many yellows it was better than fireworks:)

  20. @Tim Klinkenberg #22

    I remember such awe-inspiring experiences at Zion, Ft. Wayne, during my seminary days.

    That parish is also a wonderful story of a traditional congregation that reached out to its changing neighborhood as the old Germans moved to the suburbs and a wide variety of other children of God moved in. Joseph’s coat of many colors is reflected today in the people as well as the windows — while they together sing the liturgy.

  21. @Rev. James Schulz #17
    I always feel a need to whisper, but that is likely a part of my upbringing. My parents were big on respecting other people’s desire to meditate in preparation of the service.

    I will say, I love the architecture of the old school sanctuaries. And there are a few modern sanctuaries that I have really liked circa 90’s and later. The sixties, seventies, and to a lesser extent the eighties were not kind to church architecture.

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