September 21, 2020

iMonk: “The Worship Setting”

FBCLB_MPRoom_2008_0824Michael Spencer’s classic post: The Evangelical Liturgy 1: The Worship Setting

Originally posted Aug. 14, 2009

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New Covenant worship can take place any place and any time. There is no setting specified in the scriptures, neither is there any arrangement of worship externals that we are told to imitate.

Our Roman Catholic friends have a very intentional- and quite fascinating- approach to worship space that seeks to place every house of worship in a pattern that is continuous with the revelation of God in the old and new covenants. Evangelical worship space design is certainly affected by this, but our approach to worship space is more influenced by the pragmatic concerns of worship, the centrality of the Word and the various traditions that influence a particular congregation.

There is nothing in evangelical worship that demands an abstaining from features that might be considered “Catholic.” However, it is likely that as reformation influenced Christians and evangelicals with particular distinctives there will be some attention to other traditions- some local, some historic- that will influence the arrangement of worship space.

What is important is to know that the evangelical worship space is free to be as simple or as complex as a particular congregation may desire it to be. There should be a new covenant sense of freedom in arranging and rearranging the worship space. Evangelicals should understand the concept of sacred space, but in a way that emphasizes the new covenant fulfillment of old covenant designs.

What should a worship space be called? A sanctuary? A worship center? An auditorium? These choices may reflect prevailing theology in the particular congregation, but none are Biblical mandated.

Following an evangelical understanding of the Gospel, however, I would say that an evangelical worship space should, at the minimum, contain:

A table for the Lord’s Supper. (It is unlikely any evangelicals will comfortably refer to this as an altar. I believe this should never be done.)

A baptistry, in keeping with the confessional understanding of the congregation. For some churches, a baptistry may not be possible because of cost or location. (Point to the sprinkling and pouring Protestants.)

A pulpit. Centrally located pulpits speak the centrality of the word in Protestantism, but a split chancel is no hindrance to the centrality of the Word.

A public copy of the scriptures. This recognizes that the Bible is the church’s book, and not just our individual book.

Instruments that are NOT centrally or distractingly located. Again, for some congregations, this is not an issue. I do object to the locating of an ostentatious band or organ in a central visual position.

Art that complements the worship space and is, again, not located in a distracting way. Banners, etc. should flow naturally into the space and not dominate it. For many evangelicals, a cross- not a crucifix- is an appropriate central focus of a worship space. I agree.

No flags of any kind.

Projection Screens are currently becoming a central feature of many worship spaces. Obviously, there are advantages and disadvantages to their use that will be discussed when we address hymnals and singing. My point would be that screens should be small, retractable and, to whatever extent possible, not EVER placed as a permanent visual presence in the worship space, even if this requires some temporarily distracting movement. The similarity of a large centrally located screen to a movie theater is not insignificant.

Sound systems should operate by the same rule. They should not dominate or distract, but complement and blend in. Over amplification is a worse error than insufficient volume. For many evangelical churches, a limited budget and frequent changes in the worship space will mean that a set of movable speakers may be the best choice. Again, the “club” atmosphere of large and distractingly placed amplification is not helpful.

The same is true of special lighting. What lighting options are used should blend in and not dominate, distract or make the worship space into something else. The temptation to play with sound and visuals is too much for some worship leaders. Restraint is commendable.

Seating is a matter that depends on many varying factors, but there is nothing wrong with comfort, and much wrong with discomfort and a lack of easy entrance and exit. There is much to not like about pews, and much to like about a good collection of chairs that can be rearranged.

I would mention that evangelical worship is free to utilize a great deal of variety in means and presentation, so there is much to commend a worship space that can be easily changed into whatever form is needed for various kinds of presentations. Again, we aren’t looking at our worship spaces as cathedrals, and most churches will not be able to have multiple spaces for multiple kinds of services. If a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service requires flexibility for rearrangement, drama and effects, that is nothing to be avoided.

A worship space for evangelical worship should be flexible, simple, usable by many kinds of ministries and kept free from distractions that could impede its central purpose of a gathering of God’s people around God’s gifts.

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HBC Louisville

Highland Baptist Church, Louisville KY

RESOURCE: Excellent piece at CICW on designing worship space.

NOTE: Someone asked where I got the liturgy bug as a Southern Baptist. Here is Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, where I was on staff for 3 years.

NOTE FROM CM: Michael’s entire series on the Evangelical Liturgy is available in the archives. The simplest way to access all of them (plus other articles on the subject) is to go to the Categories menu on the right side of the page just above the Blogroll. Pull down the menu and choose “Evangelical Liturgy.”


  1. “screens should be small, retractable and, to whatever extent possible, not EVER placed as a permanent visual presence in the worship space”

    Easy way around this is projecting onto a blank section of wall.

    • I imagine that as we get accustomed to new technologies, they will seem less obtrusive, and screens or displays will eventually become part of the background when not in use. This is already true for video displays in most living rooms.
      For me, a roll-down screen would be a much bigger distraction than a fixed screen.

    • Christiane says

      “A table for the Lord’s Supper. (It is unlikely any evangelicals will comfortably refer to this as an altar. I believe this should never be done.)”

      If evangelical Christians knew this, they might reconsider using the word ‘altar’:

      The early Church had been there for a number of years prior to the time John wrote the Book of Revelation, and in that book, there is mention of practice of the early Christians to place their martyred dead underneath the ‘altar’. Take a look at this from Revelation chapter 6:

      “9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters,[e] were killed just as they had been.” “

  2. No flags?

    NO FLAGS???

    The heretic.

  3. Kyle In Japan says

    I hear churches use the term “altar” all the time. Obviously evangelicals aren’t uncomfortable with it (neither am I.)

    • This evangelical doesn’t really know what is meant by the term.

      • It’s a table for your spiritual cookies.

        • David Cornwell says

          Maybe your real cookies to eat during worship. At least in one church I visited recently. Along with coffee. In fact there is a coffee break in the middle of the service. But that’s where I sat down after singing standing through 10 verses of some chorus (which all sounded the same to me).

        • I just thought of Cookie Monster attending a Lutheran or Catholic service and laughed.

    • Steve Newell says

      The alter is Christ’s alter of his body and blood seed for our sins on the cross. It is on the alter that is placed the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, that we receive in Holy Communion as part the Worship service. On the alter at my Lutheran Church, there are five “X” with one in each corner and one in the middle; this represents that five places that Christ was pierced on the cross for our sins. The alter is not for us offering gifts to God but for the gifts that God gives to us through the Lamb of God.

      The alter is focus point of worship since it where we gather around to receive Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins as part of worship.

      • Ahhhh, we call it the communion table. Always in the centre except during a baptism (cause it blocks the view.)

        • Mike, our communion table is never in the center except first Sunday of each month for communion. The rest of the time it’s way up back against the baptistry because it would block movement of the music team.

          BTW, our church is very conservative in most things, but the altar placement and the pulpit (that’s kicked to the back of the room too and ignored) aren’t among those things.

          And you’re right, in the types of churches we frequent it’s a “communion table”, never an altar, and we serve “communion” or “the Lord’s supper”, never “eucharist” and God forbid “mass”. That’s for the stone church up the street.

          The most extreme thing I heard recently was when a local character, sort of like Red Green, returned to our church after several years away. In Sunday school the first morning he mentioned the Catholic interpretation of mass and likened it to “blasphemy” because we no longer need to keep sacrificing Christ. I pointed out that we were about to serve communion that morning, but he got around it. I counted three insults against the Catholics from him before Sunday School was over (one of the insults neatly tied in with immigration policy). It was a learning experience for me.

          Interesting that Michael Spencer nixed the flags in a sanctuary. My church messes with the altar, messes with the pulpit, but don’t nobody mess with them flags (maybe we’d get away with it, but none of us has dared to try).

      • This why Michael Bell said that evangelicals don’t understand what is meant by the term. If you explained to them why it’s called an altar, they’d have serious theological disagreements.

        The odd thing is that having an “altar call” often means coming up front and praying by the stairs at the bottom of the stage, when an actual altar–as in, a table–usually isn’t there at all.

        • …or, as an Anglican priest once said, “Altar calls? Yeah, we do those. Every week. The whole church comes forward, every single time!”

        • An altar is a place to offer a sacrifice to God. That is its consistent uses in both the First Testament and the second. Whether a drink is poured out on it, an animal is slain upon it, or precious incense is burned upon it, it remains god-ward in its focus; that is, something is given (offered up) to God. The cross follows this pattern. In it, Jesus the son offered his own sinless life up to God.

          What can an altar mean to Christians, now that Jesus has done away with sacrifices of the Temple system (Hebrews 9 and 10)?

          The Catholic answer is that the altar is a place where the sacrifice of Christ is re-created. The wine and bread become the literal body and blood of our Lord, given again for his people.

          For non-catholics, this is obviously not an acceptable interpretation. We have two other choices.

          The first of these is to see the altar as the place where we now offer ourselves to God in dedication and trust and obedience. In the words of Hebrew 10, the worshiper says, like His Lord, “Here I am. I have come to do your will”. Paul talks of this in Romans 12:1 “therefore, I urge you, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices—holy and pleasing to God”; He then fleshes this out in ethical terms. I Peter 2 portrays all believers as priests in God’s temple, “offering spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ”. The writer of Hebrews (already noted) uses some of this same motif, and concludes by calling believers to offer “a sacrifice of praise”. In this usage, then, an altar is less a physical place than a spiritual motif; an altar is where we offer our selves to God in worship, service, and obedience, as a loving and freely chosen response to His goodness and mercy to us.

          The second option for non-catholics is to view the altar not as a place where an offering is given, but where an offering is remembered or celebrated. I am not sure this usage has biblical warrant, but I could be wrong.

          In any case, evangelicals do, in fact, know what an offering is for. To say otherwise is un-charitable, in my opinion. The real question is whether the second (non-catholic) interpretation has enough biblical usage to outweigh the standard definition of an altar as a place where sacrifices are given, not remembered.

          • btw, Origin (early 200’s) when responding to pagan attacks on Christians for their lack of altars, summed it up nicely: “The altars are the heart of every Christian”

          • For those interested (ok, probably no-one) here is what Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says about the understanding of sacrifice and altar in the Epistles and early church:

            “The figure of sacrifice, so familiar to Paul, helps him to understand it as the basic event of salvation. The same figure helps him to understand the Christian life. As believers we are to offer thanksgiving, or to offer ourselves as logik? latreía (Rom. 12:1). All that we do in faith, e.g., in ministry (Phil. 2:17b) or giving material help (Phil. 4:18), becomes thysía and leitourgía. 1 Peter is to the same effect when it calls Christians a holy priesthood (2:5) whose gifts are spiritual sacrifices as they offer back their lives to God (cf. 1:15).

            The NT experience of salvation frees the author of Hebrews from the cultic conception of sacrifice which dominates his world of thought. Yet, in spite of the constantly emphasized differentiation between the image and the reality, it provides him also with a means to portray the saving work of Christ. We can thus understand the spiritualisation of the concept of sacrifice which he carries through with the express help of Ps. 40 and 50, ? 183, when he finds the meaning of sacrifice in fulfilment of the will of God, 10:5ff., and when he demands of Christians the sacrificial ministry of unceasing worship of God and performance of acts of brotherly love, 13:15f. In the sphere of the new ???????, whose establishment by Christ brings the old ??????? to an end, 8:6ff. etc. (? II, 132), there is no more sacrifice in the literal sense. To bring oneself, one’s will, one’s action, wholly to God, is the new meaning which the concept of sacrifice acquires in Hebrews, as in Paul and 1 Peter.

            In the first post-NT writings sacrifice is a plastic image for self-giving to God. The Epistle of Barnabas finds in Christ’s death the counterpart of OT sacrifices, while the Martyrdom of Polycarp regards martyrdom as a sacrifice; fasting, benevolence, and prayer are sacrifices in the Shepherd of Hermas. Justin, with his typological view of OT and NT worship, calls the sacramental elements thysíai (Dialogue 41), though for him only prayers have the character of true sacrifices (117). “

          • Try this one, see if it works: The altars of the OT were also a place of sustenance. The levites ate from some of the meat that was killed for sins. Now we are a Kingdom of priests, and we from the altar feast on what was killed to remove our guilt.

          • Miguel, I like it. Nice point.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Ever noticed that the churches with Altar Calls are always non-liturgical churches without an actual altar?

  4. It is good to share places of worship. The last place we glide over is the place of the heart. It seems to be a safe place to us until we open a door that basically (and often dangerously) says, “search me and find those places(of my heart) that offends you O God that may be surgically cleansed by the Spirit through the communion of confession and repentance. Then my heart becomes shaped in the best place – the shape of the cross.