Rows and aisles.
As the people enter, they walk up the center aisle and find their seats. When the clock strikes the hour, the musicians come on stage and start playing. Everyone’s attention is drawn to watching the musicians play.
Is it a concert? No, it’s church.
So it’s no wonder, since the place is set up like a theater or concert hall, that the band’s performance is critically judged. And the preacher’s, too. It’s all about what goes on, on stage.
The church I attend now gets away from this “entertain me” expectation by having the musicians along the side up front, not facing the congregation, but worshipping with them. The physical set-up makes such a difference.
When I worked as a religion reporter at the newspaper, I often interviewed pastors who came into town to start a new church. It was going to be different than any other church already here. Walking in to the meeting space — whether it was a church building, an old storefront, a school or restaurant — there, as usual, were the aisles and rows of seats. Looked like any other church to me.
At their meeting place, the people at Solomon’s Porch, a church in Minnesota, sit on couches. The couches are not facing a front, but arranged in groupings. From the way Doug Paggitt, the pastor, describes it in the book, “Reimagining Spiritual Formation,” I picture it like a lobby, like the hotels at Massanetta Springs, Orkney Springs and Hot Springs. When I go into such a place, I love the idea of sitting down in one of those cozy groupings for intimate conversation. So inviting.
House churches are like this, too, where people meet in living rooms. So is Ikon, a community of believers in Northern Ireland that meets in public places, like cafés and pubs. Ikon does not rent a room and set chair in rows. Rather, the people sit around the tables in small groups.
In all these situations, there is no physical place of power in the room. The physical set-up matters in how they do church: the “ministry” comes from the people, from among themselves to each other. They see each other’s faces, not the backs of heads.
That’s not to say there’s no preaching or teaching. There is. Solomon’s Porch, Ikon and the house churches I know all have pastors, although their title may not be pastor, but the gift is there. The gifts are there to teach, to heal, to extend hospitality, to make music.
The difference is there’s no prefabricated form imposed on the people. Rather, the “ministry” comes from the people’s gifts, talents and abilities. The question is not, who is going to teach the women’s Bible study or play music or lead the Sunday school. The question is, what do we as individuals and as a group have to offer to each other, our community and the world?
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit,” wrote Paul, the apostle, to the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 12:4-6). “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in everyone.”
Paul then goes on to list numerous gifts of the Spirit that people have: faith, words of knowledge or wisdom, gifts of healing or miracles, discernment. In other places he lists other gifts, of charity, hospitality, help, and the leadership gifts, like pastoring, teaching, preaching, mission, evangelism.
Further on in 1 Cor. 12, Paul talks about how the body of Christ needs each other, that no one person is any more important or less necessary than another. Yet our churches are physically set up to honor the people up front.
So, none of these afore-mentioned groups meets on Sunday morning, either. Does it matter? When I think of Sunday morning, I think, “supposed to” go to church. When I think of Wednesday night or Friday night or Sunday night, I think “want to” be with these people.
Let me clarify: I am not saying that traditional church is not valid. It is. It has its place. But it’s not for everyone, and other forms are equally as valid, equally church. I believe far more believers would be part of a faith community if they did not have to reshape themselves (thus being dishonest to who God made them to be) into a prefabricated traditional structure.
Some of us are not made for aisles and rows.