Friday, June 22, 2018

Change In The Sanctuary

Copyright © Edward Riojas

When asked to create a piece of art for a church sanctuary, I am always sensitive to the fact that I am introducing change. I note the style of architecture, the placement of furniture, and the permanence of existing furnishings. A sanctuary, after all, is meant to be an unshaken retreat within a world that is constantly shaken. Many congregants have grown up in that church. Some have spent their whole lives attending the same church, and expect to have their own funerals there. They don’t expect major change – even after they’ve been lowered into the ground.
Chancel area of the new
St. John's Abbey Church
(Collegeville, Minn.)

Sometimes, however, I feel as though I am working on a molecular level when a church sanctuary is reinvented on a planetary scale. This was again underscored on a recent visit to the campus of St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

We first entered the megalithic expanse of St. John’s Abbey Church, an imposing facade created by an endless train of cement trucks, miles of rebar, and nearly one ounce of common sense. Then we walked a short distance to its predecessor, renamed "The Great Hall."

One glimpse of the interior of the original St. John’s Abbey Church begs so many questions, the first of which is: Why did someone feel the need to abandon a place of such exquisite beauty? The original sanctuary is filled with imagery that screams, in specific terms, the majesty and glory and power of our Lord. The newer sanctuary just ... screams.

Original chancel of St. John's Abbey Church,
renamed "The Great Hall"

While drastic, St. John’s reinvention of itself isn’t an isolated case. Strange things can happen when under the guise of “upgrades,” “improvements,” and “makeovers.” I know of a church, for example, whose members felt compelled to reorient the axis of their sanctuary – simply for the sake of tradition. The original chancel became a raised platform for choir and organ console, and the new chancel area became a pinched place midway to the back door.

Even the church in which I was baptized was not exempt. The Church Extension Fund-thing was implemented after ushers tired of putting folding chairs down the aisle. A giant sanctuary was built next to the old, with a courtyard and adjoining classrooms, and the original, beautiful sanctuary was given a dropped ceiling as part of a 1970's makeover. The growing pains reversed themselves, church attendance fell through the floor, and the church eventually – and painfully – was un-dedicated as an LCMS entity.

Change may be inevitable, but stupidity needn’t come along for the ride. More than carpeting color; more than the stiffness of pew cushions; more than brass fixtures in well-designed lavatories, strong consideration must be given to any sanctuary so sought after by hurting and repentant sinners. Then the sanctuary must be given more consideration. And yet more. This place of worship is, after all, The Lord’s house – not His garage.