What Are We Worshiping? Part Two

Good News to share this week.

Last week, I wrote about my concerns that good church folk may be worshiping their building more than their Savior.

At Old South this winter, we are worshiping in our parish house, located across the street from our church building. The plan to move worship was based on two factors. The first was an attempt to curb our demand on fuel. And, the second was in recognition that our building, tucked neatly into a steep hill, is not an easy building to get into (or out of) during the often snowy and icy months of January and February.

When the Oversight Committee announced the change last fall, a couple of people were—and I don’t think this is hyperbole—distraught at the prospect. Worship outside of the sanctuary would not be worship at all, they declared. I asked these folks just to try it. If, in fact, worship did not feel like worship, we could move back over to the church building. No problem. After all, it’s fair to say that the parish house is not the most “church-like” of buildings. It is utilitarian and useful, to be sure, but it’s not anything like Old South’s grand and lovely sanctuary.

We’ve had two weeks of worship in the parish house and already there’s talk about how to move this parish house worship experience into the sanctuary—when it’s time to move back. Even one of the more vocal doubters has indicated a clear liking of this new experience. Astonishing and wondrous. Good news, indeed.

What’s so great about worshiping in the parish house? The congregation must sit closer together—and it turns out, they like it! Some people have admitted to meeting people they’ve never met before—even though they’ve been sharing the same church experience for years—and they like it! The choir is now part of the congregation as well. And, that too, has been greeted with enthusiasm. Probably the most heartwarming of this new choir arrangement is a relationship between a grandmother and her grandson.

We have a young woman who attends Old South with her young son. The grandmother also attends Old South and sings in the choir. The grandmother and grandson usually only see each other on Sundays, and the grandson clearly loves being with, and physically close to, his grandmother. In the sanctuary, though, the choir and the congregation are far apart. The grandson often gets agitated and is unhappy when his grandmother is up in the choir loft. Last Sunday, in the parish house, the choir sat in the congregation. And that meant that the young grandson could sit right next to his grandmother all through the beginning of the service (until it was time for him to go to Sunday School). As his grandmother was singing the anthem, the look of wonder and pride on the grandson’s face was a wonder to behold.

For the first time ever in Old South’s experience, we are using words like “intimate” and “cozy” to talk about worship. We don’t ever do that in the sanctuary. And, somewhere in there is a sense of their renewed relationship with each other, and why they are there—to get closer, and to feel closer, to God. Although the large space in the sanctuary certainly helps us connect with the enormity of God, the parish house is helping us connect with the intimacy and closeness of God, of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Worship in the parish house has been more casual and informal, and it feels like there are more people staying for fellowship after worship is over. Sermons have allowed for a little more give and take, with people who would never speak up in the sanctuary, feeling more free to raise their voices in the parish house.

Next month, we will celebrate the 225th anniversary of the gathering of Congregationalists in Hallowell, Maine. I think it says something about us that our ancestors in faith gathered for the first time in one of the coldest and harshest months of the year. And we will celebrate that anniversary in our parish house, which was built just over fifty years ago. Someone commented that it was too bad that we were not going to celebrate the anniversary in the sanctuary. But, then they paused and reflected that those first Congregationalists didn’t gather in that sanctuary either.

The people of God aren’t confined or defined by a building. It’s a marvelous thing to realize that that is indeed true. Praise be to God!

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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