Worshipping God in the Everyday Spaces of Life

The Liturgical Life as Territorial Adventure

Clint Le Bruyns

Introduction

Worship has always been carried out as a territorial venture of life. The reality of space is inextricably bound up with the act of worship. They are inseparable. Worship occurs in a particular spatial setting, and this spatial setting is what enables our worship to be concretized and made visible in the arena of our everyday lives. Worship plus space equals the giving of glory to God in the manifold spheres of life. We are called forth to explore and participate in the various territorial dimensions of this journey of life, then, as an act of holy worship.

A Crisis in Worship

It has become a platitude nowadays to bewail the crisis of worship in the life of the contemporary Christian church. Worship services and liturgical activities do not appear to necessarily be accomplishing vitality and growth for the Christian community. Many outside the church would categorically declare that the Christian church is crumbling and is, in some parts of the world, not too far from demise. A recent newspaper article, for instance, noted certain predictions of doom and gloom vis-à-vis the church in Britain: "The Christian church in Britain will be dead and buried within 40 years. It will vanish from the mainstream of British life, with only 0,5% of the population (one in 200) attending the Sunday services of any denomination."[1]

This dilemma is one facing all churches today as it looks in and ahead to the future. The reality of the matter, is that the worship services and liturgical activities of the average church seem quite irrelevant and other-worldly for the issues and concerns uppermost in the minds of humanity. William Diehl in The Monday Connection clearly states: "The hymns, sermons, prayers, and creeds of Sunday morning have no impact upon the outside world unless they shape the lives of Christians during the rest of the week."[2] Consequently our Christian faith is labelled impotent and rendered ineffective in making a significant difference in the day-to-day affairs of our lives. This inevitably presents the church with a crisis in worship.

Is there a connection between our understanding of the territorial and the apparent crisis in worship? Apparently so, for this crisis of worship is essentially a crisis of territory. The contemporary church has lost sight of this sense of ‘sacred space’. We have restricted the category of worship to that of Sunday performances and rituals, thus relegating the meaning and impact of worship to the margins and peripheries of human life and experience. "What more can there be to worship than the Sunday worship services?" some may say. And, as long as this is the case, what more can one expect than the decline in and demise of Christian vitality and witness in the generations to come? "What does it profit a person to worship God for one hour in a church on Sunday," laments William Diehl, "but be unable to experience God’s presence in the Monday world?"[3]

This crisis of worship has enveloped the church because of a short-sighted understanding of the territorial dimension of worship and liturgy. If the church can earnestly strive to recover this sense of ‘sacred space’, however, the meaning, experience, and impact of worship will be enlarged and encountered as profoundly transformative in human society today. A paradigm shift must occur for the sake of the worshipping community and those who may be drawn to a life of Christian worship.

Worship and Space in Antiquity

In the religions of the ancient Near East, the act of paying homage to the gods was clearly intertwined with the various territories of life. [4] Some designated area formed the basic context for worship as ‘sacred space’ or territory. For many such ‘holy places’ a specific point or enclosure was marked off - often by a line of stones - to indicate and represent the manifested divine presence and activity of the god. The choice of such sacred space was not a human initiative on the part of the worshipper, but rather a responsibility and a right that rested solely with the deity as he manifested himself in the appropriate location. Sacred trees, waters, land tracts, mountains, temples - these are just some of the numerous sacred spaces affirmed by the Semitics and Canaanites of the ancient Near East.

The Israel of the Old Testament, within the living framework of the ancient Near East, also operated according to such spatial principles of worship. The glory of Yahweh was communicated and concretised through the medium of sacred spaces. Where nature manifested the presence of the God of the patriarchs, sanctuaries were erected. Whether near a tree, or on a natural height, or by a water-source, where God had shown Godself, there sanctuaries could be found. Even desert sanctuaries were found as the Israelites employed a tent as a sanctuary in the wilderness, commonly known as the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:7-11). The Ark of the Covenant was also part and parcel of their worship in the desert, a visible sign of the presence of Yahweh (1 Sam 4:6-7). Ultimately, for the Israelites, the Temple became the centralised sacred space in Jerusalem for all Jews.

By the time the Christians became independent of Judaism, a readjustment in the spatial nuance of worship had already materialised. No longer was worship restricted to a particular structural area, such as the temple or synagogue; on the contrary, worship was carried out by the believers wherever they happened to meet or find themselves. This included their homes (1 Corinthians 16:19b; Philemon 2) - which was actually the place where their religious, social, and professional lives intersected - prison (Acts 12:5; Philippians 1:14), the desert area (Acts 8:26-39), the ocean (Acts 27:20-26), and various other spaces.[5] The Fourth Gospel puts it most succinctly in the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4:19-24): "Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathersworshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshippers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth."

A Christian worldview vis-à-vis the spatial reality of worship must seek to enlarge its view of sacred space. All space is sacred space, since all space belongs to God and, ipso facto, exists to bring glory to God. "The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters. …Who is he, this King of glory? The Lord Almighty - he is the King of glory." (Psalm 24:1-2, 10).

Moreover, the challenge is in the harnessing of all the spaces of life to be consecrated to God in living worship. We must identify the prominent spaces of human life as sacred spaces, yet spaces also in need of redemption and transformation. We should never forget that these spaces exist only because of Christ (Colossians 1:16a), that they find their place in human life only in relation to Christ (Colossians 1:17), and that these everyday spaces find purpose and fulfillment only to the extent that these are used to bring glory to the Father (Colossians 1:16b), rather than fulfilling a profane use. We must glorify the Lord as we live our everyday lives, in the midst of the harsh realities of life, through the kaleidoscope of living spaces we encounter in life as part and parcel of God’s overall sacred space.

The Profane in the Spaces of Life

What constituted the sacred character of a place of worship? Reflecting on this question in the light of various Semitic places of cultic worship, Roland de Vaux explains quite simply that a place of worship was ultimately sacred because it was withdrawn from profane use.[6] 'There were two possible reasons for setting apart a space which was held to be sacred: men may have decided to cut off a definite portion of land from their own territory in order to consecrate it to God, as a kind of tithe on the earth; by paying this tithe, they could then make free use of the rest; alternatively, they may have put a stop to profane activity because the mysterious andfearful presence of a divinity in his sanctuary radiated around the place of worship.'[7]

How was the threat of the profane on the spaces of life dealt with in earlier times? According to de Vaux, by consecrating to God a designated portion of the space as ‘sacred space’ to be used for noble purposes, but also by simply prohibiting any profane activity. This sacred view of cultic territory did translate into the worship experiences of Israel. We therefore observe that Israel faced prohibitions and privileges relating to its liturgical activities in the structural spaces of its life together on the land. Moses learns of the sacred ground on which he stands because Yahweh’s presence radiates in his midst (Exodus 3:5). Israelites are not permitted to enter the area of the Tent (Numbers 18:22). Various regulations are in place to protect the integrity of the Temple at Jerusalem (Leviticus 16:15; Hebrews 9:7). What is clearly in view is the danger that these ‘holy places’ of the Lord face the possibility of being profaned. As such, these spaces must always be acknowledged as areas of God’s holy and transforming presence, but also that these spaces be set apart in consecration to God as holy places, employed for holy rather than profane uses.

Now there are numerous contemporary spaces of human life which must be measured against these terms and conditions. These include the following everyday spatial categories: streets, the workplace, the ocean, the environment, farms, the home, parliament, shopping malls, cultural centres, theatres, cinemas, parks and playgrounds, hospitals, educational institutions, banks, sport centres, airports, the automobile, parking lots, community centres, the world wide web, retirement villages, church buildings, and so on. Such spaces we cannot do without; they feature prominently in the general milieu of our modern lives and, therefore, must be reviewed with reference to the issue of worship.

Given that all space is sacred space, how well are these spaces acknowledged as areas of God’s presence? It is this very question that indicates a fundamental component of authentic worship in life’s spaces: allegiance to the God who is the rightful owner of the manifold spaces of life and, therefore, the One whose presence must be affirmed and incarnated. [8]

To this end we should never confuse the roles; we should never deny our creaturely status and attempt to play the role of God in the way we respond to the content of these spaces. If we fail to remain in our rightful place in creation and in relation to the created places, we will certainly be held accountable for the profaning of these everyday spaces. This, as Norman Wirzba points out, is the temptation of our lives as we strive to worship God: "We’d rather have a world of our own making and within our own control than acknowledge God’s ownership and control of creation."[9] And this, quite sadly, is what Ted Peters calls "sin" and that which ultimately gives rise to evil in the spaces of reality - "the failure to trust God."[10]

To continue with the process of reflecting on the spaces of life, many more questions must be asked: How well do these spaces reflect the holy presence of the Lord? Are these spaces contaminated with the profane? How and for what purposes are these spaces being used? Do these spaces facilitate worship of God? Do these spaces bring glory to God? Do these spaces bring us closer to God and closer to our neighbour? Do these spaces empower us for service? These are all-important questions that must be answered. The worship of God and the integrity of the worshipping community is at stake. As we briefly consider these questions, it may be helpful to reflect upon a few of such everyday spaces: the street, the workplace, and church buildings.

The Street

is a place to meet people. It is a space we need and must use to reach a destination. Streets are areas in which we live. We use streets to get exercise, or to take a walk with our family. We walk our dogs on the street. Our streets are even used as avenues for marching and proclaiming justice. Streets belong to God, and form part and parcel of that which is sacred space. God lives on the streets of our cities, and reveals Godself in various ways as the God of the street who is involved in our daily lives.

Streets are also dangerous places. Accidents occur. Recklessness on the roads and road rage are responsible for much pain and death for those who happen to use the streets. People are hijacked on the streets; some are raped; others are robbed of their belongings. Many die on the streets. Streets are also areas frequently used for immorality. Prostitution is common on many streets. The stability and well-being of families are jeopardised because of sexual promiscuity and unfaithfulness being practised on our streets. These streets may provide the setting for lifelong regrets and unwise decisions.

Streets may also serve as divisive societal spaces. Some streets exist as borders between the rich and the poor, and frequently aggravate class divisions. Streets provide a quick escape from people we’d rather avoid; just like the priest and the Levite in the account of the Good Samaritan (Luke 15:31-32), we cross the road and walk on the other side, rather than encountering the one who is our neighbour. Clearly the status quo on our streets is that the profane is certainly rife. Reflecting on the streets today, we may find it difficult to see the street as a place of worship where God resides and where we may find transformation.

 

The Workplace

fulfils a very important need in human society. Workplaces vary from person to person - the office, the classroom, the kitchen, the street, the factory, the garden, the home, and so on. As a contemporary space it provides an opportunity to feel a sense of worth and to play a significant role in the wider community. It assists us in serving the needs of our family and ourselves. It creates the possibility of improving our status and contributing to the well-being of others. In the workplace much learning and skills-development occurs, as well as the establishment of a good social base amidst the relational network within the working environment. We meet and grow close to all kinds of people in the work space.

This, notwithstanding, the workplace is also challenged by the temptation of the profane. Many experience their places of work as exploitative, alienating, and unfulfilling. Scores of people are deprived of even having a desirable workplace or the workplace of their choice, in the light of unemployment trends. The workplace may also be the setting where relationships are damaged or marred, or even destroyed. Sexual immorality takes place in this space, too. As a contemporary human space in everyday life, it is certainly not left unchallenged by the reality of the profane.

Church Buildings

continue to play an important role for local churches. They accommodate worshippers, they protect people from harsh weather, they provide a sense of security and stability for church members. Church buildings offer churches a sense of identity and visibility in the community. They serve as a powerful way of communicating the holy otherness of God in a holy space. These church buildings even reflect the church’s deepest beliefs in the way it is built and maintained, thus telling a story and something of its history.

Church buildings also present some concerns in the community. According to Howard Snyder, church buildings may frequently communicate several things.[11] I will merely mention two of these. Firstly, class divisions. These buildings usually indicate the status of its members, and may easily draw a visual line between rich and poor. Secondly, church buildings often restrict fellowship. Most buildings do not allow for people to socialise very easily, and the seating arrangements do not allow for community to be experienced. Usually the best view of someone we may have is the back of their head or the side of their face. We will never see the tear in the eye or the smile on the face.

Redeeming the Spaces of Life for God

Worship must mean, inter alia, reclaiming those spaces of life contaminated by the profane and redeeming them for God’s glory to shine visibly for all to see. We can only talk about God’s ‘worthship’ if we are concerned about Christ’s Lordship being affirmed and concretised in the everyday spaces of life.[12] How do we seek to redeem human spaces such as the streets, or the workplace, or the church building, so that God’s transforming presence is known and God’s glory is given?

The Street

As part of everyday life, the streets should serve as a profound place for worship to occur. We must seriously reflect on how God is already present, seeking to capitalise on these aspects. For example, if God is being revealed through you as you develop relationships with your neighbours who live on the edge of the streets, then maintaining and deepening those relationships with people will continue to provide your neighbours with an experience of God in their midst on the street. Your reaching out to others on the street is your way, albeit one way, of worshipping the Lord and giving God glory. Worship always takes place in a specific place, and such a place - if God be present - is always a space where God is revealed. It is this kind of revelation that ultimately leads to change and transformation in lives, conditions, and circumstances.

As far as the profane activity on the street goes, it must be stopped. Prohibitions and privileges - just like in the life situation of the Israelites - can play a significant and constructive role in rooting out the profane. There is a place for Christians - as part of their holy worship - to strive for the implementation of appropriate regulations on the street which may end up ultimately preserving the sacred on the street. For instance, street residents may look into the possibility of the authorities making speedbumps as a way of protecting life on the street. Others may consider the establishment of various privileges enjoyed by those who, for instance, keep their residential spaces on the street clean.

On the wider and bigger streets like the freeways, some places offer as privilege one lane to be used freely by drivers with passengers; this is a good way to encourage car-pooling and community, while at the same time discouraging traffic congestion on the streets and environmental pollution.[13] These may very well be part of our holy worship on the streets.

The Workplace

Worship should take place in the very spaces of our work. In this way worship would naturally be an all-day and lifelong adventure. The routines of the day would suddenly be a dynamic and exciting experience. We must also consider how God is already present in our places of work. How is God’s presence being felt as you nurture your children, as you chair the budget meeting, as you wash the dishes, as you study for exams, as you reach out to kids on the street, as you teach your students? These are the areas which are part of praise in worship, and which also empowers us to go forth from worship to witness. These, too, will give one perspective and hope when conflicts and trials set in as part of the workplace experience.

Prohibitions and privileges come into play once again in the attempt to protect, preserve, and affirm this holy presence of God. The profane in the workplace must be obliterated. There is a place, therefore, for labour unions which seek to protect the dignity and status of the worker as God’s good creation. There is a place for rules against prejudice and discrimination, against nepotism, against inappropriate dress code, against fraud and theft, and so on. Profane activity must be stopped, and holy behaviour must be encouraged. That which is true, good, pure, honourable, trustworthy, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8) - these are the virtues to be addressed and inculcated in the work space. These are the things by which people should be rewarded and affirmed. Christians, in their spaces of work, must be testimonies of the fruit of the Spirit, as they worship God in the very places of work.

Church buildings,

especially, must facilitate worship of God. As the church gathers each week, there must be a real experience of God in worship. Part of this process involves a deep experience of fellowship and unity in the midst of diversity. Church buildings must play a direct role in contributing to this end. New churches, building new structures, should think carefully as they design buildings, being sure to reflect on its facilitation of worship. One point especially requiring emphasis is that church members never think of worship as something restricted to the building, where the building becomes the primary focus. We are called to go, but our buildings usually say "Stay!" This space must draw people closer together and in closer relationship with their Lord. Perhaps our church buildings should also be available to serve the wider community during the week; after all, what a waste of building and space if the worship experience only takes place once or twice a week!

Conclusion

God is seeking worshippers who, by worshipping in spirit and in truth, actively bear witness to the glory of the Lord in the manifold territories of human life. Each worshipper plays a significant role in such worship as they seek to acknowledge the transforming presence of the Lord, as they consecrate to God the spaces they encounter, and as their lives become a categorical "No!" to the profane in these places. The nature of this task is wholly practical as humble service. 'To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, to devote the will to the purpose of God. [14]

The liturgical rites and activities of the church play an immensely integral role in the attainment of these ideals. In one of the Second Vatican Council documents, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the nature and role of the liturgy is highlighted:… it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church. … The liturgy daily builds up those who are in the Church, making of them a holy temple of the Lord, a dwelling-place for God in the Spirit, to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ. At the same time it marvellously increases their power to preach Christ and thus show forth the Church, a sign lifted up among the nations, to those who are outside, a sign under which the scattered children of God may be gathered together until there is one fold and one shepherd.15

Liturgy is related to the whole people of God, a fortiori, the whole life of the people of God. Our ecclesial liturgies must serve us in our responsibility to glorify God in the everyday spaces of life. It must build us up, inform us, motivate us, conscientise us, renew us, challenge us, direct us, and change us.

Through it all, we become the dwelling place of God’s Spirit - a sign to the church and to the world of the all-embracing glory of God, and a sign of the oneness of God’s holy community. God’s glory will be known in our oneness. May we worship the Lord in all God’s splendour, in spirit and in truth, as God’s living spaces reaching out to the everyday spaces of human life as a territorial adventure.

 

References:

[1] The Cape Argus, "The Christian church is crumbling" (Monday, November 13, 2000), p. 9.

[2] William E. Diehl, The Monday Connection: On Being an Authentic Christian in a Weekday World (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 2.

[4] For a more extensive study on ancient cultic worship, see Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961 ET), pp. 271-342.

[5] An enlightening and resourceful article on worship in the early Christian setting by David Aune - "Worship, Early Christian" - is found in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 6: Si-Z, David Noel Freedman, ed. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), pp. 973-989.

[6]Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1961 ET), p. 276.

[7] Ibid., p. 276.

[8] For a brief overview of Israel’s theology of the land, but especially as it relates to the notion of "divine ownership", see Christopher J.H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land and Property in the Old Testament (Wm. B. Eerdmans: Paternoster, 1990), pp. 3-23.

[9] Norman Wirzba, "Caring and working: An agrarian perspective" in The Christian Century (September 22-29, 1999, Vol. 116, No. 25), p. 898.

[10] Ted Peters, Sin: Radical Evil in Soul and Society (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), p. 8.

[11] Source unknown.

[12] An excellent resource on the content of this general call to follow Christ in all spheres of life, see The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity: An A-to-Z Guide to Following Christ in Every Aspect of Life, Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 1997), 1166pp.

[13] Commonly known in the USA as the "diamond lane".

[14] William Temple as cited in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), p. 199.

[15] "Sacrosanctum Concilium" (4 December 1963) in Vatican Council II, Vol. 1: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Austin Flannery, ed. (Northport, New York: Costello, 1996), pp. 1-2.

 


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