Volume 47, Issue 3 :: by Keith Anderson
Distributed and Situational Sacred Space
Those who believe that in Christ God has brought life out of death, hope out of sorrow, and love out of cruelty are now called to see the world, the everyday and ordinary, with new eyes, the eyes of faith—and to live lives of hope and love directed to the neighbor in need. To be sure, this view undermines many of the safe distinctions that we have come to rely upon—particularly the distinction between the sacred and the secular; but it seeks to replace those dichotomous categories with integral notions like incarnation and sacrament. In so doing this view seeks to relocate the sacred not beyond but within our everyday experience.Ronald F. Thiemann, The Humble Sublime
Pastor Keith Anderson meets with the congregation of ‘God on Tap’ in a local pub.
When I was younger, I made pilgrimages to medieval cathedrals. Now, it seems, I make pilgrimages to new mission churches.
Last summer I made a pilgrimage to Humble Walk Lutheran Church, a new mission start congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, located in St. Paul, Minnesota.1 I first learned about Humble Walk during the research for my book with Elizabeth Drescher, Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible, a hands-on guide for ministry leaders on using social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube in their ministries.
Humble Walk was using social media in interesting ways, so I interviewed their pastor, Jodi Houge, who gave one of the most memorable quotes of the entire book. She said, “We recognized that most people don’t come looking for a church in our demographic. And so, we thought from the beginning, ‘We know this. The church is sinking.’ The facts are on the table for mainline denominations. So, we’re not going to do these big glossy things that try and draw people to our cool, fancy, hip church. We’re going to be where people already are, and try to be the church where they are.”2
For Humble Walk that means being embedded in their local neighborhood, the West End of St. Paul. They have decided not to have a church building, and instead to meet in local gathering spaces. They hold “Theology Pub” nights and “Beer and Hymns” gatherings at their local pub, the Shamrock. They host bible study at Claddagh Coffee House. They worship in a local art studio, and during the month of July they worship outside in a local park.
That’s where I caught up with them. We gathered on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Highland Park. People were seated at picnic tables, in lawn chairs, and on picnic blankets. We reflected together on scripture. Communion was served using an old plate that looked like it was from my grandmother’s kitchen on a small folding table with a handmade mosaic; plastic IKEA cups held the wine and grape juice. Later that week, I went to the Shamrock Pub for dinner with friends so I could see where Theology Pub and Beer and Hymns take place. And there, while eating a Paul Molitor burger3 (which, by the way, I highly recommend), I noted how, unlike some of the pilgrimages I had made before to St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Mark’s in Venice, and Notre-Dame in Paris, to make a pilgrimage to Humble Walk I had to visit multiple locations. I had to walk the streets and enter into the life of the West End.
I realized that by not having a building and instead embedding themselves in the life of the West End, they were making their entire neighborhood their cathedral. The main road in this part of town, 7th Street West, was their nave. The side streets were the ambulatories. And the shrines, well, the shrines were everywhere—in parks and bus stops, coffee shops and pubs, churches and community gathering spaces, homes and apartments.
Indeed, the entire neighborhood became sacred space, holy ground.
This caused me to look at my own neighborhood and my own ministry differently. I work in a much more traditional congregation, Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania. UDLC was founded in 1753 and has been on the same piece of property ever since. And yet, we also host Theology Pub nights and Beer and Hymns, and Coffee and Conversation gatherings in a local café. The visit to Humble Walk helped me see all of these not just as episodic forays into the neighborhood, or trendy ways of doing ministry, but as ways of naming as sacred space the places where people gather in their everyday lives.
As Houge suggests in the quote above, this is not how most ministers in mainline churches are accustomed to thinking about sacred space. While we certainly affirm that God is everywhere, in practice we often reduce sacred space to our church buildings, and then even more narrowly to a specific scheduled time for worship.
In my own Lutheran tradition we use the language of “the priesthood of believers,” meaning that each person is a minister in daily life, that they live out their holy calling in the world in their jobs, their homes, and their community. And yet, despite that rich theological inheritance, we often associate the godly life only with things that are done in and for church, which often translates to a layperson being asked to serve on a committee, and therefore within the church building. Of course, these are all good things, but they are not the only ways we live out our faith. So, how are we to regard all the time spent outside of church, and all the places it takes us?
In her book, Sacred Power, Sacred Space, Jeanne Halgren Kilde makes a helpful distinction between two ways of looking at sacred space, what she calls the “substantive” and the “situational” approaches to sacred space. She writes that in the “substantive” approach, advanced by Mircea Eliade in The Sacred and the Profane, places are deemed sacred because a divine power dwells in them. “These holy centers orient individuals and groups ‘vertically,’ creating a spatial link between heavenly power above and the more problematic, even evil, power of the underworld below. They also orient groups ‘horizontally,’ dividing the landscape into sacred centers and profane fringes, imprinting a hierarchy of meaning onto the very earth itself.”4
In contrast, the “situational” approach proposed by Jonathan Z. Smith in To Take Place is more constructivist in nature. Kilde writes, “How people organize themselves and behave within specific places imbue those places with sacred importance. …space is sacralized by human action and behavior, and certain spaces become sacred because people treat them differently from ordinary spaces. …places are sacred because they are made so by human beings. …sacredness is situational…. Groups of believers create holy places by investing certain places or spaces with religious meanings and then acting upon those meanings.”5
The ways in which Humble Walk sings hymns or studies the bible at the Shamrock is a way of, to use Kilde’s terminology, sacralizing that space. When we host conversations about life and faith at my local café or pub, we are doing the same.
It is a way of constructing sacred space, not with the architecture of buildings, but the structure of belonging and practice. It happens beyond our church buildings in local gathering spaces, when people pause to pray before a meal, give and receive love, serve their neighbors, when they find themselves at the intersection of life and faith.
People are, in fact, sacralizing space all the time. The ground they walk on is holy. When we enter into these local gathering spaces, we are not somehow making them holy; rather, we are acknowledging their holiness and along with that, the sanctity of people’s daily lives. As Ronald Thiemann writes, we are invited to see the world not as divided up between the sacred and secular, but to “relocate the sacred not beyond but within our everyday experience.”6
This honoring of the sacred in everyday experience is part of what I have come to associate with the concept of the “Digital Cathedral.” The Digital Cathedral is not an online or virtual church. Rather, The Digital Cathedral is intended to evoke an expansive understanding of church in a digitally integrated world, one that extends ministry into digital and local gathering spaces, recognizes the holy in our everyday lives, and embodies a networked, relational, and incarnational ministry leadership for a digital age.
I have chosen the medieval phenomenon of the cathedral as an image for ministry in a postmodern age because cathedrals, like the spacious, light-filled Gothic architecture that defines so many of them, have a sense of openness and inclusivity, which reflect a historic ministry of hospitality to believers and unbelievers, residents and pilgrims, strangers and friends, that still resonates today.7 It is a corrective to a Church that has, in many ways, closed in on itself. Although we often think of cathedrals as monumental buildings, cathedrals themselves have always been deeply rooted in the life of their local community, not only as towering symbols of God’s presence and the Church’s power, but also in more subtle and more practical ways: by employing local workmen and residents in the ongoing maintenance and functioning of the cathedral, as the inspiration for everyday religious experience and encounters with the divine, and as a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of its people.
In her book, the city of god: faith in the streets, Sara Miles finds the sacred among the profane, and locates Augustine’s City of God within and among the City of Man. She writes:
It’s not just inside church buildings that you can find God: in the holy city, God is the temple and dwells among his people. The people cross themselves before lunch in a break room or a school, process down the street carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary, pray in the parks, light candles on their stoops to honor the dead, gather with crosses to sing hymns and protest immigration laws. Plenty of poor people in San Francisco, like the homeless guys who build shrines in their encampment under the bridge, converse freely and intimately with God in public. And so do some rich, ostensibly modern people: they hold bible study in the conference room of a downtown investment bank or send prayers via Twitter to their co-workers at a tech company. The city might be far less religious than most if measured by the number of people who attend churches, but in its streets it’s the city of God.8
Today ministry leaders find themselves in a new religious landscape, one where the mainline Church has lost the central and privileged place it once held in American culture, and where the number of religiously affiliated continues to grow. We cannot simply wait for people to show up in our church buildings. We cannot remain trapped in a narrow understanding of “substantive” sacred space. Rather, like Humble Walk, we must recognize, name, and engage the “situational” sacred spaces that are continually constructed beyond our buildings.
- See http://humblewalkchurch.org
- Elizabeth Drescher and Keith Anderson, Click2Save: The Digital Ministry Bible (New York: Morehouse Press, 2012), 157.
- See http://minnesota.cbslocal.com/top-lists/best-creative-burgers-in-minnesota/
- Jeanne Halgren Kilde, Sacred Power, Sacred Space: An Introduction to Christian Architecture and Worship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 5.
- Kilde, 7.
- Ronald Thiemann, The Humble Sublime: Secularity and the Politics of Belief (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2013), 41.
- Jane Shaw, ‘The Potential of Cathedrals,’ Anglican Theological Review 95, no. 1 (Winter 2013), http://www.questia.com/read/1P3-2883105911.
- Sara Miles, city of god: faith on the streets (New York: Jericho Books, 2014), 59.