Church: Space and Spirit

The churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ... is both a building and a community, a space and a spirit. The spirit of community is created and expressed ritually when the community gathers. “The peace of Christ be with you,” says the ministerMinister is a general term for a member of the clergy in the Christian church. The term has also come to use in other religious traditions to designate a member of the clergy (as in the Jodo Shinshu tradition and the Nation of Islam)., smiling broadly and opening her arms toward the congregation. “And also with you,” the people respond. “Let us greet one another with a sign of peace,” she beckons. What follows in churchesThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., all across America, is an informal moment embedded in the midst of a formal Sunday service, when members of the church turn toward one another with a warm handshake, a hug, perhaps even a kiss, and a word of peace. “The peace of Christ be with you,” they say. For a few moments, the rows of worshippers, seated side by side, break into a buzz of greeting and embrace. It is this spirit of shared commitment to Christ and to one another that makes this gathering for worship a “church.” Above all else, the church is a community of people.

As for the church building, there are as many kinds of American churches as there are church communities and regional cultures. The Southwest has its old adobe churches, the Rocky Mountain states their log-cabin churches. In urban areas, there is the storefront church with its Hispanic PentecostalPentecostalism is a term used to describe a twentieth-century Christian movement that emphasizes Spirit-filled worship, including glossolalia or “speaking in tongues,” as is said to have happened on the first day of Pentecost nearly 2000 years ago in ... congregation, and the Catholic urban mission, operating out of a former movie theater, its marquee now announcing mission programs. The elegant austerity of the old New England Congregationalists still persists in the countless white clapboard churches, steeple pointing heavenward, the interior unadorned. Other churches, like the National Cathedral in Washington D.C., preserve a Gothic style reminiscent of the cathedrals of Europe. They create an atmosphere of awe, majesty, and mystery, the sanctuary itself lifting the attention of the worshipper toward the heavens. There are modern-day cathedrals as well, such as the Crystal Cathedral in Anaheim, California, a glass and glitter American-style cathedral within a few miles of Disneyland. Built by televangelist Robert Schuller in 1980, the Crystal Cathedral was bought by the Roman Catholic DioceseA diocese is an administrative unit of the Christian Church, presided over by a bishop. of Orange in 2010 after Schuller’s church—which claimed 10,000 members at its peak—filed for bankruptcy.

Especially in the past twenty years, many large old urban churches have become home to multiple congregations. Some call these congregations “nesting” churches, new immigrant church communities that make their nest, so to speak, with the structure of another church. There are tens of thousands of such churches today. A Chinese-speaking congregation shares space with an English-speaking United Church of Christ in Flushing, Queens. They worship separately, the English-speaking congregation in the sanctuary, the Chinese in the fellowship hall; the two congregations meet for the social hour after the services. In other multi-congregationalThe congregational form of Protestant Christianity has traditionally affirmed the autonomy and authority of the local congregation in calling and ordaining its ministers and organizing its affairs. In the 17th century, the English Puritans introduced cong... churches, Korean or Samoan congregations might use the sanctuary for a service on Sunday afternoon. In this way, America’s newest immigrants have started a multitude of Vietnamese Catholic, Korean PresbyterianPresbyterian is the general name for churches governed by elected presbyters or elders and refers especially to Reformed churches in Scotland and England that shaped Presbyterian churches worldwide. The church is distinguished both from those in which aut..., and Chinese evangelicalThe Greek word euangelion means “good news” and an evangelist is one who proclaims and shares the good news of Christ. Evangelism is the preaching and witnessing to that good news. Evangelicals are Christians who emphasize the personal experience of G... churches.

Every church building contains more than a sanctuary. There are kitchens and fellowship halls, classrooms and libraries. In the late twentieth century, however, an entirely new and even more comprehensive church “campus” emerged with the adventAdvent is the Christian season of preparation for Christmas, the four weeks before Christmas in the Western churches; the first Sunday in Advent is the beginning of the Christian liturgical year. of huge “megachurches.” Entering Second BaptistThe Baptist tradition includes a variety of Christian churches which trace their beginnings to the Anabaptist reform movement that rejected infant baptism insisting on the importance of baptizing only those who are able to profess the faith as believers. Church in Houston, for example, one might feel more like one had entered a large office complex than a sacred space. There are escalators and closed-circuit television monitors. The enormous sanctuary seats more than a thousand people and the facilities include a fitness center, a bookstore, and a college preparatory school for grades K-12. The Woodway campus, one of five branches, also hosts a restaurant featuring indoor and outdoor seating. Here both the church building and the community experience have come to embrace more and more of the members’ day-to-day lives.

The Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, takes a further step. While churches have traditionally served a town or neighborhood called a parishA parish is the geographical neighborhood or area served by a church or pastor., the sprawling suburbs of today’s cities have produced what is now called a “commuter” church. By design, the 141-acre South Barrington campus looks more like a community college than a traditional church. Gone are the pews and the chancelThe chancel is the part of church, often elevated by a few steps, where the altar and pulpit are located. Often this is where choir members are seated and the place from which clergy conduct the service.. Entering this sanctuary is more like entering an auditorium where over 4,500 people can be seated in theater-style seats, focused not on the altarAn altar is a raised platform or stand which bears the central symbols of a religious tradition—whether in a temple, church, shrine, or home—and at which offerings are made, worship is offered, or prayers are said., but on a stage where a singing group leads the community in easy-to-learn Christian music. The entire “church experience” appeals to many people who might otherwise not be attracted to church at all. Willow Creek was originally developed to attract residents of the suburbs. In response to the fact that members often drove more than an hour to reach the campus, Willow Creek now includes five suburban campuses, a Spanish-speaking “regional” at its South Barrington location, and an urban campus in Chicago.


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